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Guidance for protest and “civil disobedience”

The right to freedom of speech and freedom assembly are fundamental human rights. They are protected in law and allow individuals to engage in peaceful protest. However, these rights are limited by the need to uphold the rights of others, protect public health and safety, minimise disruption to normal life and by the need to prevent and detect crime.

“Civil disobedience” is not clearly defined in law but may refer to the deliberate and non-violent violation of laws, regulations, or policies as a form of protest.

Actions associated with “civil disobedience” such as blocking roads or occupying buildings are not afforded the same protections in law as freedom of speech and assembly. They may be unlawful in terms of criminal and civil liability. In particular, they may give rise to specific criminal offences under the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987.

Protest and Civil Disobedience

If people are engaging in protest, they:

  • Should, if requested, engage with the police.
  • Must not endanger the safety of themselves, participants in the protest or anybody else.
  • Must not block a roadway or footpath.
  • Must not enter any building as a trespasser.
  • Must not cause damage to property.
  • Must not intentionally interfere, impede or obstruct a lawful activity.
  • Should respect the rights of others.
  • Should follow the instructions provided by police.

What will Police do?

  • If appropriate, we will attend the protest to ensure that the rights of all concerned are upheld.
  • We may identify any issues of concern e.g. potential criminal offences or unacceptable impact on the rights of others.
  • We may issue lawful instructions to organisers and participants in order to ensure that any protest remains lawful.
  • We will keep a record of our interactions with organisers and participants to facilitate accountability.
  • If any offences take place, we will take lawful and proportionate action in response.

If an offence is suspected by police:

  • We may record evidence e.g. by way of handheld or vehicle mounted-cameras.
  • Where possible, we may warn persons suspected of committing an offence.
  • We may arrest and detain persons suspected of committing an offence.
  • Ultimately, the decision on whether to prosecute will rest with the Public Prosecution Service.