Open air preachers could require permits under bye-laws under discussion by Belfast City Council

Belfast City Councillors will today debate new bye laws which could require open air preachers and other public protestors to apply for a permit if they wish to use electric amplification systems in the city centre.

By Philip Bradfield
Friday, 22nd October 2021, 4:00 am
Updated Friday, 22nd October 2021, 9:24 am

The news comes after Belfast Green Party councillor Mal O’Hara recently posted a photograph of an open air preacher using a public address system outside City Hall.

Decrying “extremist preachers,” he said they take over the public space with the “sheer volume” of their preaching, noting that the council is working to draft beylaws to address the issue

DUP Alderman Brian Kingston confirmed that councillors will debate byelaws to address the issue at council committee level today.

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Loughbrickland street preacher Ryan Willliamson has been arrested twice since August, once in Larne and also in Dundalk.

“It has been floated before, particularly the concerns about amplification of people who are either demonstrating in the city centre or street preachers with loud amplification for long periods of time,” he said. “And sometimes there are counter protests.

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“There is a draft of potential bye laws coming before committee today where a permit may be required and the issue of how loud it can be and how long they can stay in one position may be addressed.”

The bye laws may also address graphic images relating to abortion and animal rights which people find “upsetting”.

“Of course there are rights to demonstrate protest and preach and it is something that the council needs to get a balance on.”

Any bye laws would be enforced by council officials with fines and could require a permit to use amplification systems in the city centre, he said.

But PUP councillor John Kyle said he was concerned about the possibility of restricting the use of electric amplification systems. “That would infringe on someone’s right to protest,” he said. “I can understand if they were going to be there for two hours blasting out - that then becomes an issue - but I think in public areas we don’t want control by authorities to be too rigid. We need to allow people freedom of expression. Does the Decibel level from a public loudspeaker exceed that of a band passing? We are in danger of setting a precedent that then leads to further restrictions on people’s freedoms.

“While I acknowledge that loud noise can be disruptive and affect people’s experience of something I think we need to be prepared to make room for that for the benefit of wider society - albeit that freedom needs to be exercised responsibly and with consideration for others.”

Loughbrickland man Ryan Williamson, who was in the photograph posted by Mr O’Hara, is to stand trial in Dundalk District Court after being arrested in the town while preaching. He is facing public order charges after refusing to give his name or stop preaching when directed to do so by Gardai.

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