Attempts to prevent loyalist flag- and march-related violence took a bizarre turn this Friday, September 27th, as accused loyalist ringleaders Willie Frazer, Jamie Bryson and Jim Dowson wore fancy dress costumes to a Belfast court appearance.
Frazer was dressed as radical British Muslim cleric Abu Hamza at the Laganside complex, wearing a flowing black robe, skullcap, fake beard, an eye-patch and hooked hand.
The prominent County Armagh loyalist, a founder of the ultra-hardline Protestant Coalition, is on bail awaiting trial for charges linked to loyalist flag disturbances over a decision by Belfast city council to end the daily flying of the British flag over City Hall.
The change of policy provoked months of loyalist violence, and was in turn followed by one of the most violent Protestant marching seasons of recent years.
Frazer is accused of three counts of taking part in an unnotified public procession, obstructing traffic in a public place, and possession of a prohibited weapon.
Speaking before entering the court, Frazer said he had dressed as Abu Hamza in protest at the charges he faces.
“The law that they [the authorities] are trying to charge me with was brought out to deal with extreme Muslims, who are preaching hate and bitterness on the streets of the United Kingdom,” he said.
He was accompanied by fellow flag protestors Jim Dowson and Jamie Bryson, who appeared to be partially dressed as Arab women.
In court, Frazer’s lawyers were given one week to state whether he will contest the charges.
The extraordinary behaviour of the loyalist leaders followed ‘peace’ talks mediated by a US diplomat to help resolve marching, flags and justice issues.
Speaking on the eve of his departure, Richard Haass said that most Americans had believed the conflict in Ireland had been “resolved”, but that he would continue to work to bring lasting peace to the island.
There were scores of illegal acts but no violence as loyalists took part in a controversial sectarian parade through Belfast city centre last weekend.
Around 1,000 people set off from Belfast City Hall at 1.30pm on Saturday - an hour after the Parades Commission ruled the march should begin. Large electronic signs located close to Belfast City Hall and loud speakers to warn those taking part that the parade was “unlawful”, but were ignored.
The march, involving up to 20 bands, made its way along Royal Avenue to the Shankill Road where the numbers taking part rose to around 3,000 before joining the weekly Orange Order protest in the Twaddell Avenue area.
One band taking part in the parade played the sectarian Famine Song as it passed along Royal Avenue, where a a major loyalist riot erupted over a republican civil rights march.
Organisers of another loyalist parade this weekend to commemorate the formation of the paramilitary UVF say they expect around 18,000 people to take part.
With evidence mounting that unionist hardliners are moving further away from the political process, the republican 32 County Sovereignty Committee has said Haass should explain why the issue of Irish national sovereignty was absent from the current talks process.
The violation of Irish national sovereignty by a foreign occupying power is the “real cause of conflict” which manifests itself in “triumphalist” displays of Union flags and sectarian parades, they said.
“Flags and parades are mere symptoms of Irelands past and present given that the core cause of conflict has never been on the negotiations table.
“The only viable reason for this is to instil fear in the nationalist community and force them to accept British Rule and be treated as second class citizens.”