Sinn Féin are telling porkies again—this time over flags. The party voted against a proposal from PBP to remove ‘Soldier F’ banners, arguing instead for a catch all action against ‘all banners’, which PBP did not support. Now the Sinn Féin spin machine claims that it was PBP who opposed the removal of offensive parachute regiment banners. As Eamonn McCann explains, this is not the first time the party has used controversy over a specific incident to enact wider powers of control for the Northern state.
Belfast City Council took an awkward turn on July 1st when discussing the flying of flags supporting Soldier F, the paratrooper facing two counts of murder and two of attempted murder arising from the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry.
The ‘Soldier F’ flags and banners had widely been condemned. The July 1st council motion was a direct result.
But instead of simply demanding the removal of Soldier F flags and banners, or broadening the motion to take in sectarian symbols or threatening messages generally, Sinn Féin took the lead in proposing a wide-ranging ban on all banners which didn’t have the approval of Stormont’s Department for Infrastructure—legal owner of street fixings such as lampposts.
Despite an amendment from People Before Profit’s Fiona Ferguson to hone the content of the motion to specifically target Soldier F flags, accompanied by warnings of the dangers of more powers for the department to blanket remove any and all banners, Sinn Féin elected representatives and members took to social media to claim People Before Profit voted against the removal of Soldier F banners. A wilful falsification of the truth, therefore, designed to deflect from the party’s wider agenda on this matter.
This particular tactic is one which Sinn Féin have favoured in the recent past—spread a narrative quickly, regardless of mistruths, in order to muddy the waters. It is worth noting that every Sinn Féin councillor voted against the People Before Profit amendment. In fact, their Party Group Leader Cllr Beattie commented that they wanted their motion to be broader and more wide reaching than just loyalist banners supporting Soldier F. Instead proposing protocols that could restrict ‘all banners’ , leaving the possibility that progressive causes could be restricted by Stormont in the future.
Why, it might be asked, use expressions of support for a murderer as ‘justification’ for restrictions on free speech more broadly? Precedent suggests a reason—that, generally speaking, Sinn Féin prefers people to be controlled rather than be in control.
The Public Assemblies Bill
Back in early 2010, Stormont was in suspension, again. The immediate issue was how to handle contentious marches. The DUP wanted an end to the role of the Parades Commission, which had restricted the routes of a number or Orange demonstrations. Sinn Féin, too, wanted a new agreement on parades, so as to prevent, for example, Orange marches along the Garvaghy Road.
The two parties set up a six-strong working group to ‘bring forward agreed outcomes which they believe are capable of achieving cross community support’. The group comprised Stephen Moutray, Nelson McCausland and Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP), and Gerry Kelly, Michelle Gildernew and John O’Dowd (Sinn Féin). They held their first meeting on February 9th 2010 and delivered their report on April 20th. The report took the form of a draft of a new bill—The Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Bill (Northern Ireland).
The content of the bill took many by surprise. The entire purpose of the enterprise had been to devise a system to replace the procedures of the Parades Commission. There was no hint of a suggestion when it was set up that it might engage in drafting a new, wide-ranging public order act. But that’s what Nelson McCausland, Gerry Kelly and the others came up with.
The detail of the proposed Bill aimed at controlling and curtailing demonstrations of all sorts, not just contentious marches.
The explanatory guide produced by the six DUP/Sinn Féin representatives defined the purpose of the proposed law as ‘to establish a legal framework that will allow for the introduction of new procedures governing public assemblies in Northern Ireland’.
The Whims of a Minister
Not contentious marches, but ‘public assemblies’. Clause 5 of the draft Bill defined ‘public assembly’ as ‘covering any public procession, meeting or protest, apart from funerals and gatherings which the First and deputy First Ministers specifically order to be excluded.’
‘Public meeting’ was defined as ‘a meeting of 50 or more persons held in a public place to which the public or a section of the public are invited to attend’.
Lest there be any doubt about the targets the Bill was aimed at, the working group offered a practical example of what it had in mind: ‘If a group wanted to protest against the closure of a local sports facility this … would fall under the definition of a public meeting and would therefore be subject to the notification procedures for a public assembly outlined in clause 13.’
Clause 13 spelt it out that a campaign to save a sports facility—or library, or leisure centre, or residential home—would have to give 37 (working) days notice of any march or protest. So, notification of a rally scheduled for, say, August 1st, would have had to be submitted by June 24th.
Spontaneous marches would be banned, full stop. No more downing tools and walking off the job. No more marching against an arrest or incident which had just happened.
The law promoted by the DUP/Sinn Féin group would have had serious implications for trades unions, community organisations and all sorts of campaigns.
No Explanation Offered
There was no public explanation—much less discussion—of how the group had come to devise, not a remodelled Parades Commission, but an elaborate bureaucratic machine for managing and curtailing the right of citizens to voice protest.
Had such a measure been mooted in the days before their accession to government in 2011, half the members of the working group (perhaps a different half on different occasions) would have been on the streets with the protest placards.
Now however, it was put out by the working group for consultation. It was this process which killed the Bill.
The main reason not that civil libertarians condemned it—although they did—but that the Orange Order told the DUP in no uncertain terms that the party would risk the support of the Order if they tried to force the measure through.
Since then, the two Parties—Sinn Féin most stridently—have adopted the strategy of denying point-blank that any of this had ever happened. But it did happen. And it tells us a lot about Sinn Féin’s dodging and weaving now on the Soldier F issue.
The debate concerning the proposed motions and amendments can be found here, on Belfast City Council Webcast: https://belfastcity.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/431070