Orange Order may not give police notice on parades

BBC News NI's political correspondent Martina Purdy reports

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A senior Orange Order member has said the organisation may no longer give police notice of parades.

Rev Mervyn Gibson said the order had observed loyalist flag protestors being able to march into Belfast every week without a Parades Commission ruling.

It is understood the commission has not ruled because legal advice indicates it does not have the power to do so.

The commission was told it can only rule where parades are notified to the police.

Mr Gibson told BBC Northern Ireland's The View that the order is considering a new tactic - not filling in the notification forms for the PSNI in future, even though it is legally required to do so.

He said: "They will seek legal advice and that could be a possibility, yes.

"Simply because you fill in the form, you could get charged with an offence (under parading law).

"You don't fill in the form, you aren't committing an offence other than you broke some other law.

"What would be the point of filling in a form if you could end up with a criminal conviction?"

A spokesperson for the Parades Commission said: "The law is very clear. It is an offence to organise or participate in a parade that has not been notified through the appropriate form to the police."

"Where a parade is not so notified and is therefore breaking the law, it is a matter for the police to deal with under the various options open to them that could include stopping the parade or gathering evidence for potential prosecution."

While police have insisted they cannot stop marches they have not been notified about, they do have the power to arrest those taking part in an unnotified march.

However, they have been reluctant to do so due to concerns around public safety and human rights legislation.

PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott told Thursday night's The View programme: "We will first of all put the protection of life first, if we can enforce the law at the time we certainly will and people that chose to take part in illegal acts will have to face the consequences.

"But I think this is a time for quiet reflection and I do look to our civic leaders, our political leaders and particularly our church leaders to make the statements that are required for the law to be respected."

It has been assumed the Orange Order is more liable to prosecution than flag protestors as it is more obvious who is organising one of their marches, the district master for example.

Mr Gibson said that was one for the lawyers.

"That's a point barristers are going to make a bit of money on over the coming summer," he added.

Judicial review

Mr Gibson was asked if the Orange Order was prepared to exploit political stalemate and weakness in the system at a time when the government was seeking stability as it prepares to host the G8 summit.

He said: "We will do what we need to do to get our parades and our culture celebrated in a way which threatens no one."

His comments come as a Short Strand resident prepares to challenge the Northern Ireland secretary of state and the PSNI over the handling of the flag protests, in the courts.

A judge has granted leave for a judicial review as the resident argues these parades are illegal and should be stopped.

A decision is not expected until April.

In the meantime, the PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr has expressed concerns that the summer's marching season could be volatile with tensions at an all-time high following flag protests.

Alliance Justice Spokesperson Stewart Dickson said that the Orange Order was playing a dangerous game.

"I would ask their leaders not to get involved in such actions," he said.

"It would be detrimental to our society if we were to have a summer of illegal marches."

The DUP Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Dondaldson said it was a very difficult position for the police to be in and that progress needed to be made on parades.

"People should obey the law, but people have a right to protest lawfully and there are major problems in how parades are handled," he said.

The View will be broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland on Thursday night at 22:35 GMT.

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