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Protesters Outfox British Guards

Ban on the centuries-old sport of hunting with hounds is passed despite a rare intrusion on the House of Commons floor, a serious breach.

September 16, 2004|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Five protesters angry about plans to ban fox hunting managed to get onto the floor in Britain's House of Commons and accosted members before being dragged off by ushers dressed in traditional long-tailed coats and buckled shoes.

Despite the intrusion, apparently the first such incident in more than three centuries, Parliament outlawed hunting with dogs by a 356-166 vote. The result fulfilled a Labor Party pledge dating to the start of Prime Minister Tony Blair's government in 1997 to end the centuries-old sport.

However, the vote was overshadowed by the second serious breach of security in this country in three days, renewing fears that safeguards in Britain are inadequate and that the prime minister and royal family could be vulnerable.

Members of Parliament were visibly shaken when the protesters penetrated several levels of security, walked past private offices used by Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, and entered the chamber through doorways that are supposed to be tightly restricted.

"Totally unacceptable," said Mark Oaten, a member of the Liberal Democrat Party. "Clearly the way things operate now is not working."

Officials promised an immediate investigation, amid suspicions that a pro-hunting lawmaker may have aided the intruders. Other security reviews were underway at Buckingham Palace, where a protester from a fathers' rights group scaled a fence and wall Monday to reach the balcony used by Queen Elizabeth II when she greets her subjects.

On May 19, members of the same organization had "bombed" Blair with purple-colored cornstarch from the gallery of Parliament. One of those protesters received a suspended two-year prison sentence Wednesday.

Parliament was in mid-debate on the fox hunting legislation at 4:20 p.m. when four men in white pro-hunting T-shirts emerged from behind the chair used by the speaker, and another dashed in from the opposite direction.

"This isn't democracy! You are overturning democracy!" a protester shouted as he stood before Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael. The confrontation was broadcast live on television.

Deputy Speaker Sylvia Heal sounded an alarm and suspended the session while doorkeepers wrestled the protesters from the room. Debate resumed after about 20 minutes. Blair was not present for the melee.

Skirmishes outside were hardly less pitched. An estimated 10,000 rural residents organized by the Countryside Alliance assembled outside Parliament, some dressed as foxes, carrying placards denouncing Blair's government and the proposed ban.

As Parliament Square filled up during the day, protesters were squeezed and pushed into barricades. At one stage, outnumbered officers used truncheons to beat them back, their blows opening wounds on the heads and faces of those in the front ranks.

"They just piled in and gave everybody a good licking," complained one protester who declined to identify himself.

Protesters threw firecrackers, bottles and smoke bombs.

In previous years, attempts to ban fox hunting were blocked by the House of Lords, the other chamber of Parliament. This time, the government announced that it would invoke a rarely used law to override any such move.

"They are trying to change a way of life that has been around since civilization began," complained demonstrator Wendy Parkes, from Suffolk, in east England. She and her three children all hunt, she said. "This is a law made by people who don't understand about life and death in the countryside."

Blair was hoping to postpone the effective date of the ban until after the next general election, expected within 18 months. Parliament agreed, voting Wednesday night to make the ban take effect in July 2006.

The ban applies only to England and Wales -- Scotland had enacted its own law limiting fox hunting -- and applies only to the traditional hunts that use hounds to chase down the prey.

Animal rights groups celebrated the vote. "It is the result that we have been waiting for a long time," said Rob Atkinson, wildlife director for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Activists have worked for years to ban fox hunting, saying the sport is cruel not only to the animals hunted but also the horses and dogs used in the hunt. Proponents say hunting allows a humane and necessary cull of foxes, which kill fowl and livestock, and provides jobs.

Several commentators said the raucous actions by the pro-hunting contingent, particularly their breach of Parliament, would undermine public sympathy for their cause.

"If they had been armed, had a bomb, they could have removed the leadership of both major parties, " BBC correspondent Andrew Marr noted in a broadcast. "MPs are extremely angry about it."

The last breach onto the floor of Parliament was believed to have been in the early 1640s, when King Charles I entered with soldiers to arrest opponents, sending lawmakers fleeing. The parliamentarians eventually regrouped, and Charles was later beheaded.

*

Janet Stobart of The Times' London Bureau contributed to this report.

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