16 December 1999 Edition

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No absolute right to march

High-profile solicitors and legal experts joined over 130 people on the Lower Ormeau Road last weekend for the last of a series of four conferences aimed at giving a nationalist response to sectarian parades and the workings of the Parades Commission. An Phoblacht's Caítlin Doherty was there.

``There is no absolute right to march''. Despite being from different backgrounds, the conclusions of the panelists at this conference, held under the banner ``Marching and Sectarianism - Rights and Responsibilities'', were similar.

After a formal opening by Sinn Féin Deputy Mayor Marie Moore, Ciaran Harvey, a Belfast-based lawyer, outlined how the European Convention for Human Rights provides for the right to freedom of assembly and association. ``However, a number of conditions have to be respected,'' he added. Such conditions are that public safety, health and ``rights and freedoms of others'' are protected. Harvey also stressed that, ``as a political animal, the European Union is reluctant to act against individual states''.

John Gormley from the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community said that ``no rights are absolute. Any rights are balanced and circumscribed by other rights.''

Talking about the Ormeau Road, he said ``the community is mature enough to decide for itself how it wishes to implement its rights to freedom of expression and assembly. It neither wants to spend its time marching, nor protesting.

``Our freedom of expression consists of living our daily lives without suffering sectarian abuse and provocation from a crowd of bigots.

``Our freedom of assembly consists of going about our lives without being constrained, harassed and imprisoned by the RUC acting as a private militia for the loyal orders''.

The whole question of marching has to be redefined in the context of the new political arrangements, he said. ``If the Good

Friday Agreement is to succeed, it must enable us to leave behind the type of society that gave rise to an unfettered right to march by organisations that are blatantly sectarian.''

Ed Lynch of the American Bar Association challenged the common vision that ``the American Constitution allows the Orange Order to march down the Garvaghy Road or the Lower Ormeau''. ``In 29 years of practise, I have yet to read in our Bill of Rights that there is a right to march''. He also said the 4th amendment to the US constitution stresses that ``rights of the people to be secure in their persons, homes and effects shall not be abridged''. Every ethnic group in America had a parade, ``but those parades go where they are welcomed''.

The conclusions of this vast consultation process will be published in the New Year.

An Phoblacht
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