Seventeen members of a loyalist flute band have been cleared of defying a ban on them marching past St Patrick’s Church in Belfast in the latest sign that the courts do not intend to hold loyalists to account for parades infractions.
The bandsmen had been charged with failing to comply with a Parades Commission prohibition on their band, the Young Conway Volunteers, which has links to the paramilitary UVF. But this week a judge dismissed the latest case, arguing that it could not be proved those marching knew about the rulings of the parades commission.
The judgement is one in a series of conflicting rulings which has seen all but six bandsmen cleared of any wrongdoing, despite openly parading along a forbidden section of the parade route during an anti-Catholic march in August 2012.
A month earlier the same band had been filmed walking in circles outside the church on Donegall Street, playing the sectarian anti-Irish ‘Famine Song’ during the Twelfth of July demonstration. Often sung by loyalists in Scotland, the song features the chorus catchline, ‘Their famine is over/Why don’t they go home’.
Footage of the band marching on the prohibited part of the route in August failed to convince the magistrate, who accepted defence arguments that the bandsmen might have been unaware of the prohibition.
The defence had argued that (front page) news and television coverage of the prohibition could have gone unnoticed. It was also argued that six large signs erected on the day, warning that the parade was illegal, could have been blocked by pedestrians, and that flyers handed to bandsmen by police could have gone unread.
District Judge Ken Nixon held that the prosecution failed to reach the standard of proof required. He noted the evidence of people having been on the street and potentially “obliterating” the signs.
Acquitting all 17 accused, Judge Nixon said: “The standard of beyond reasonable doubt has to be established.
“On these facts the case against these defendants is dismissed.”
Meanwhile, loyalists have already begun placing UDA paramilitary flags at flashpoints in north Belfast, three months ahead of the height of the marching season. The UDA flags were placed along the flashpoint at North Queen Street on Wednesday night.
Loyalists have also begun collecting material for bonfires used in the annual ‘Eleventh night’ fires. Wooden pallets are piling up on waste ground at Lanark Way, just off the Shankill Road in west Belfast, the scene of a controversial bonfire last year when a statue of the Virgin Mary was placed on the pyre.