PETER Robinson and Martin McGuinness have backed down on several aspects of a controversial new law which would have restricted public assemblies.

Although they did not acknowledge that the draft legislation was seriously flawed, the first and deputy first ministers announced it would now not extend to cover all public gatherings, an implicit acceptance that it was ill-conceived.

The draft law had been ridiculed by the PSNI, which said that its officers could be forced to arrest individuals having a large barbecue in a back garden, while churches feared open air preaching would be criminalised and trade unions warned it would rule out many public protests.

The legislation has already been crippled by the Orange Order refusing to support it, although it is not yet clear whether attempts will be made to have Grand Lodge take a second vote on it following the impending changes.

In a statement, first minister Peter Robinson said that �several key amendments� would be made to the draft Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Bill before it is brought before the assembly next month.

�The primary change will be the removal of all public meetings from the remit of the legislation. The public consultation open-air and other similar public meetings would be captured by the legislation,� he said.

�This was not the intention and this amendment will absolutely clarify this.

�Furthermore, we intend to address any confusion about the references to human rights in the legislation to make clear that these references indicate a framework based on the European Convention of Human Rights.�

Mr McGuinness said: �This process brings a new beginning to dealingwith parades based on mutual respect and the rights of citizens to be free from all forms of harassment.�

He added: �The bill will now be limited in application to parades and related protest meetings.�

However, although key aspects of the draft law are now being dropped, senior DUP and Sinn Fein figures have publicly said there was no need to make changes to the planned legislation.

In April, DUP culture minister Nelson McCausland, one of those involved in drawing up the draft law, told the News Letter, in response to criticism from a Free Presbyterian minister about restrictions on churches holding open air meetings: �I anticipate no difficulties whatsoever.�

Another of the draft bills authors, Sinn Feins John ODowd, wrote a lengthy defence of the planned legislation for the partys magazine, An Phoblacht.

In its statement last night the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister OFMDFM said it had received 410 responses from members of the public during its consultation about the proposed law.

Those responses were not published, but a summary of the views expressed noted: �The vast majority of respondents were strongly opposed to the inclusion of public meetings within the draft legislation.�

It said there were religious grounds given for some of the concerns, including views that open-air evangelical services and other outdoor church-based activities should not fall within the remit of the bill.

The 37-day notice period required for organisers of public events to register with the new parades quango was described as �excessive� by many respondents, OFMDFM said.

Responses also focused on the �impracticality of the number 50+ in determining which meetings should be notified� and criticised the law for all but banning spontaneous protests.

OFMDFM said that �a number of those who responded felt that the bill should be abandoned in its entirety� while others said the consultation process was unsatisfactory.

Others said that the DUP-Sinn Fein working group responsible for creating the draft law had gone beyond its remit to deal with parading.

The bill was part of the Hillsborough agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein to secure the devolution of policing and justice.�

Published date on the 12th of August 2010
Article taken from the The News Letter