North Belfast republican Damien ‘Dee’ Fennell has finally beaten an attempt to jail him over a speech he gave at an Easter Rising commemoration in County Armagh in 2015.
In a ruling delivered at Belfast Crown Court, Judge Geoffrey Miller QC said that while some of the words used by Mr Fennell in his speech could be deemed offensive “in the ears of many right-thinking members of society”, they were his personal opinion.
Judge Miller presided over the non-jury Diplock trial in September, when the Crown made the case that Mr Fennell was ‘guilty’ on charges of inviting support for the Irish Republican Army and encouraging support for the IRA.
The charges arose from a speech lasting eight minutes which was delivered by Mr Fennell to a crowd of around 70 people on Easter Sunday at St Coleman’s cemetery in Lurgan.
He was arrested two weeks after making the speech. He refused to respond to PSNI interrogators, and also refused to testify during the non-jury trial in September.
A section of the speech criticised Sinn Fein for welcoming the English royal family to the 26 Counties, with Mr Fennell telling those at the cemetery: “The only welcome the IRA gave to a member of the British Royal family was delivered in a boat off the coast of Sligo.”
Judge Miller said these comments were “deeply objectionable” and were a specific reference to the 1979 IRA attack against Louis Mountbatten, a five-star naval officer of the British Royal Navy and a cousin to the English queen Elizabeth Windsor.
Rejecting a charge of “encouraging terrorism”, Judge Miller admitted there was a right to freedom of speech “in a democratic society”.
He added: “However offensive the words used by the defendant might be in the ears of many right-thinking members of society, they were expressions of personal opinion, which did not invite or encourage support for the IRA.”
In a statement subsequently issued by Mr Fennell, he said that he had been subjected to a censorship order.
“When bailed I was initially banned from all public speaking,” he said. “This meant I was in theory even banned from normal activities such as giving an opinion at parent meetings at my children’s Bunscoil [primary school] or even addressing a members meeting at Ardoyne Kickhams or Crumlin Star [Gaelic sports clubs].
“As intended by the State, it also prevented me from articulating any view in terms of political, social or community issues. This ban was refined after a year, but still, I was prevented from articulating any view relating to republicanism.”
He accused political opponents and “compliant media outlets” of a campaign of character assassination against him, due to his strong support at the last election to Belfast City Council.
“I have been portrayed wrongly as a thug, bully and violent by a plethora of unnamed ‘sources’, MI5/PSNI directed Sunday rags and state-subsidised ‘community’ media outlets,” he said.
“All of this was carried out in the full knowledge that I couldn’t defend myself publicly or on social media.”
He thanked his legal team, IRPWA and Saoradh, fellow prisoners, independent Republican councillors Bernice Swift and Padraig McShane, GARC, his family and all those who organised pickets or offered support.
He added: “This case has proven once and for all that Republicans have the right to articulate and convey the legitimacy of our struggle to the wider public, and we should not shirk from our collective responsibility to do so.”