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Citizen Involvement in Parades in Northern Ireland

Participación ciudadana en decisiones sobre desfiles en Irlanda del Norte

Participation des citoyens aux défilés en Irlande du Nord


Lessons from Reformers

This case study was originally posted in the OGP Global Report.

In Northern Ireland, parades, processions, carnivals, and commemorations are core to cultural, political, and religious traditions. Unfortunately, parades have been marred by– and are sometimes the impetus for– sectarian violence. This comes to a head during the annual “marching season” between March and August. Participants often carry flags and other emblems that their neighbors consider inflammatory.

In 1998, preceding the Good Friday accords, the Northern Ireland Parades Commission was established to approve permits for parades.1 While it is not without critics, its establishment offers two positive lessons for countries struggling to balance public order and safety with freedom of assembly:

  • Removing the police from decision-making around parades. The first major accomplishment of the Parades Commission was to move the permitting decision from the police department (previously the Royal Ulster Constabulary, now the Police Service of Northern Ireland). This allowed the police to focus on maintaining public order rather than judging the legitimacy of each parade.
  • Citizen voice in monitoring freedom of assembly. The quasi-judicial body is made of citizens that compete for nominations by the Secretary of State of Northern Ireland.

Members of the British army prepare barricades in the fields around Drumcree Church, Portadown, Northern Ireland, July 5, 2003. The Parades Commission has again banned Orangemen from marching down the mainly Catholic Garvachy road, which has previously led to violence between marchers and security forces in their attempt to do so. REUTERS/TobyMelvilleTM/MD

Despite initial success, there has been concern about the Parades Commission. In 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association (see “Guidance and Standards: UN Special Rapporteur’s Guidance” later this section), at the invitation of the UK government, issued a report on the sensitive issue. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission followed with another report on how best to balance the competing demands for assembly and security.

The two human rights bodies’ reports, followed by action by the Parades Commission, resulted in a framework called “Resolution by Dialogue.” It mapped the competing considerations of different human rights (e.g. freedom from violence and religious freedom) and invited participants and affected communities to suggest ways of improving the process. Interestingly, the resolution by dialogue was based on the participatory approach in the Framework Convention on National Minorities, which requires the state to foster dialogue and mutual understanding; specifically, governments must allow minority groups to voice their opinions. Governments must also provide dialogue in accordance with OSCE Guidelines on Assembly (see box at the end of this section), which emphasize voluntary dialogue as a necessary first step before escalation to legal means such as banning a particular parade.

While the guidance is in place, some of the most controversial civic groups do not recognize the legitimacy of the body. Nonetheless, Northern Ireland offers a promising approach to citizen dialogue in promoting and protecting the right of assembly within broader security concerns.


1: The Public Processions Act gave the Parades Commission a statutory footing as well as the adjudicatory powers recommended by the North Report (P North, O Crilley, and J. Dunlop, J., Report of the Independent Review of Parades and Marches (Belfast: The Stationery Office, 1997)).


Photo Credit: Thomas Pajot, Adobe Stock

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