A notorious loyalist flute band whose leader is awaiting trial on child rape charges has been granted permission to march through a village which has seen some of the worst sectarian intimidation of recent years in the North.
The Parades Commission, which adjudicates on the routes of sectarian parades, backed an application by the Pride of the Village flute band to walk through a mixed residential area in Stoneyford in County Antrim on St Patrick’s Day.
In recent years up to a dozen Catholic families have been forced to leave Stoneyford because of loyalist intimidation.
Some Catholic families left their homes because of tensions linked to the flute band marching through the village. Six band members are understood to be facing charges of breach of the peace in connection with a parade last year.
In November the band’s controversial leader Mark Harbinson was charged with sexual assaulting a 13-year-old girl. The court was told Harbinson met his alleged victim through his role as a senior member of the band when it met in Stoneyford Orange Hall to practise.
Harbinson, who was later suspended as grand master of Stoneyford Orange lodge, has also been questioned about alleged sexual assaults on a 15-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy.
Sinn Fein assembly member Paul Butler branded the parade as “a gratuitous exercise in sectarian intimidation” and called for the Orange Order not to allow march organisers to use its premises.
“Thts is an opportunity for the Orange Order in this new political era to show that they are committed to working to end provocative parades through mixed areas,” he said.
SDLP councillor Brian Heading said the Parades Commission would be culpable in setting back community relations.
“There has never been a parade through Stoneyford on St Patrick’s Day and it is clear that this attempt to do so now is nothing more than a coat-trailing exercise,” he said.
The Parades Commission limited the parade to 15 minutes, but loyalists are expected to gather in the area for hours before and after the parade.
Wecloming the limit on the parade, Paul Butler nevertheless called for the PSNI to ban it outright. “A banning order is the only way to show that this type of sectarian coat-trailing will not be tolerated,” he said.
ORDER CONSIDERS REPORT
Meanwhile, leaders of the Protestant Orange Order meet this weekend to deliver a verdict on changes in dealing with contentious parades arising from last month’s agreement at Hillsborough Castle. The aboliton of the Parades Commission is thought to feature in a report from the DUP/Sinn Fein working group which has now been passed to the Orange Order.
The nationalist SDLP has criticised the fact that Orange officials were given briefings on the report. Nationalist residents’ groups have also criticised what they said was the secrecy behind the process, which is closely linked to continuing efforts to transfer policing and justice powers from London to Belfast.
Upper Bann Assembly member Dolores Kelly said: “By refusing to publish their report, Sinn Fein and the DUP are sending a message to the community that they will have to accept whatever political fix they have created on the future of parades across Northern Ireland.”