There has been an outcry after charges were dismissed against 17 members of a hardline loyalist band who paraded past a Catholic church in defiance of a legally-binding ban on sectarian displays.
The members of the controversial Young Conway Volunteers claimed they were ignorant of the Parades Commission ruling -- despite large signs on the route, letters from police, a protest by residents and even a message on the band’s own Facebook page saying they would ignore the prohibition.
The band, said to be linked to the paramilitary UVF, had also been signatories of a high-profile open letter, also signed by First Minister Peter Robinson, which criticised the restrictions imposed in August 2012.
The Young Conway Volunteers were banned from passing St Patrick’s Church in Belfast during the so-called ‘Last Saturday’ parade after causing outrage the previous month by being filmed walking in circles outside the same church while playing the provocative anti-Catholic Famine Song
Tensions were high in the run-up to the August 25 march as a message posted on the band’s Facebook page said they planned to “walk and play”. The day ended in violence after numerous bands flouted Parades Commission restrictions.
Nevertheless charges against 17 Young Conway Volunteers members were dismissed this week after a judge ruled that prosecutors had not proved that they knew about the ban. A defence lawyer had claimed signs erected on the day had been blocked by crowds.
In other recent cases, loyalists have been cleared of breaching parading restrictions at St Patrick’s Church after citing eyesight and reading limitations. Others have evaded prosecution by simply not signing their march applications to the Parades Commission.
North Belfast SDLP assembly member Alban Maginness said that the law needs to be changed.
“The dismissals in this case show that the law is very weak,” he said. “What has to be done is the law needs to be changed so that people participating in such an event, and in particular bandsmen, are deemed in law to have constructive notice of the determination.”