Marching into Unchartered Territory: Glasgow City Council promise to “push the law” in order to protect the public

September 23, 2019

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Recent violent protests in Glasgow have prompted the Glasgow City Council to reconsider if the laws protecting citizens go far enough.

What does this mean?

In late August, hundreds took part in a march for Irish unity in Glasgow. When the march got into the Govan area of Glasgow, it was met by a large group of British loyalists. Violence ensued between the two groups, with the involvement of smoke bombs and the police having to close off roads. Helicopters, riot police and police dogs were also called into action. After the protest, Susan Aitken, the council leader, said that Glasgow City Council is going to review council procedure on marches and is prepared to push the law to its limit to prevent violence. Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, later tweeted that she was fully behind Glasgow City Council’s comments, describing the events as “utterly unacceptable”.

What's the big picture effect?

This story highlights the trade-off between the freedom of assembly and freedom to protest and the real risk of violence arising from some protests.

So, which council procedure is being reviewed? Currently, potential marchers have to inform the police as to the time, date, route and organisers of a march. Police also have the ability to change the route or conditions of the march, as well as its length and the number of people that attend. They may also clear sit-down protests if they block public walkways.

Changes that may be implemented have not been elaborated on, but Nicola Sturgeon made the point that “[p]eaceful protest is a part of our democracy – violent and sectarian disruption is not”. This seems to indicate that the authorities will look to prevent or severely limit marches that have a real risk of violence. This comment raises the following question: would future marches be banned or heavily restricted because there was a real risk of counter-protests that could turn violent and how far would this limit our democratic values?

Additionally, it is important to note that the reports do not suggest any violence from the Unity marchers before the arrival of the British loyalists. Thus, it seems that Sturgeon’s comments may be easier to swallow because the views of the Unity marchers are not a common view and fairly controversial. But as an interesting hypothetical, what would the procedural conduct be if there were a British Unity march, which was confronted with Scottish Independence supporters and the situation turned violent?

While sectarian violence is nothing to be supported, Scottish authorities should be careful as any changes in procedure or stance could lead to unintended legal and democratic consequences.

Report written by Luke Hatch

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