Protesters gather in Belfast last year to demonstrate against an upsurge in violence; under proposed legislation such marches would have to give 37 days' notice

Proposals by Sinn Féin and the DUP to place huge restrictions on the right to protest will bring the North back to the days of the draconian Special Powers Act, according to campaigners against the legislation.

The draft Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Bill requires the organisers of public gatherings of 50 or more people to give 37 days' advance notice to the state. If passed, it will make the North the least democratic place in Europe in relation to the right to free assembly.

Some campaigners are planning a march against the bill in October on the anniversary of the banned 1968 civil rights' demonstration in Derry, which was attacked by the RUC.

Former civil rights leader Eamonn McCann said: "These proposals would drastically curtail people's right to protest. Anti-war marches, trade-union or anti-racist demonstrations, and protests against hospital closures would all be affected.

"Events usually dictate that such gatherings are hastily arranged. An employer announces they're sacking workers, or there is a racist attack on a family's home, and people need to take to the streets in protest quickly. The last bombardment of Gaza lasted 22 days. Had this draft bill been law, no protests would have been possible."

Rallies against paramilitary violence would also be affected. The protests against the Real IRA attack at Massereene would have been impossible because they were hastily arranged, McCann said.

The only public gatherings exempt from the proposals are funerals. The draft bill even states that a protest to save a sports facility requires 37 days' notice.

Anyone taking part in demonstrations without such advance permission would face up to six months' imprisonment or a hefty fine.

In an extreme emergency, the organisers of a gathering could go to a police station, fill in a form, and have it forwarded to the PSNI chief constable for consideration.

The draft bill was drawn up by a working group of six DUP and Sinn Féin Assembly members. Their remit was to establish a new means of resolving contentious marches, given unionist rejection of the current Parades Commission. Only 3% of Orange Order parades are contentious and republicans don't march through unionist areas.

"The DUP and Sinn Féin Assembly members were meant to deal with contentious parades. Instead, they have gone completely outside their remit and drawn up a public-order bill. They haven't explained why," McCann said.

The draft legislation has attracted opposition from across the political spectrum. Ulster Unionist representative Michael Copeland, said: "It's Stalinist and every democrat must oppose it. The most important right is the right to dissent and protests are essential in a healthy society. This draft bill potentially requires 37 days' notice for something as innocuous as an outdoor gospel meeting."

Danny McBrearty of the Republican Network for Unity said it was "completely hypocritical for Sinn Féin and the DUP to propose this. These are parties who have climbed to power on the back of street protests.

"Sinn Féin's political growth is linked to the hunger-strike rallies. The DUP is synonymous with 'Ulster Says No' rallies. Now that they are the establishment, these parties are trying to prevent others doing exactly what they did."

McBrearty claimed it was no coincidence that the plans emerged as public-sector cuts, school closures, longer hospital waiting lists, and attempts to introduce water charges loomed. "The aim is to smash all opposition to what the Stormont coalition does," he said.

"It's an issue which unites all who value civil liberties regardless of class or creed. The cross-community opposition to this draft bill is most welcome."

Peter Bunting of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions said: "This proposed legislation has huge ramifications for the trade-union movement. It runs contrary to guarantees in the European Convention on Human Rights. Our ability to protest against exploitative employers would be severely curtailed."