Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

SDLP calls for tougher laws after bandsmen are cleared

Alban Maginness
Alban Maginness

A call has been made for tougher laws governing parades after 11 loyalist bandsmen were acquitted of provocatively playing a sectarian tune at a north Belfast flashpoint.

Charges were brought against the band members over claims that they struck up the controversial Famine Song after passing a Catholic church.

The defendants denied the allegation, insisting instead that it had been a rendition of a Beach Boys hit.

A judge dismissed the case against all of them on the basis that it could not be proven that a breach of the peace was either intended or likely.

The defendants, all members of the Dunmurry Protestant Boys, were charged with doing a provocative act in November 2012.

Their band was taking part in an Apprentice Boys parade through the city at the time.

Belfast Magistrates' Court heard claims that after passing St Patrick's Church they struck up a controversial tune in the Clifton Street area.

A small group of around 15 nationalist protesters was said to have been gathered nearby.

The defendants' lawyer argued, however, that the band was playing Sloop John B, the Beach Boys' song which uses the same tune.

After hearing the evidence, the District Judge made no ruling on whether or not it was the Famine Song that had been played.

It was decided that the prosecution had failed to establish there was an intention to provoke a breach of the peace.

The verdict also took into account the likelihood of such an outcome given the number of protesters at the scene.

On that basis, all 11 defendants were acquitted.

SDLP MLA Alban Maguinness said the judgment sent out the wrong message to bands and he suggested that the law should be changed.

The north Belfast representative has been present at a number of the parades along Donegall Street.

"Clearly there has been a variation in the way the courts have dealt with individual cases involving bandsmen and marchers," he said.

"The variation depends very much on the facts as the court see them, whether or not people were aware of notices, etc.

"It really is a matter for the individual judge to make up his or her mind as to the facts of the case.

"At this point there is a need for the law to be reformed.

"If someone is misbehaving in the way it has been suggested, the law should clearly allow a court to determine that issue.

"It seems to me that the law at this moment in time is unclear and uncertain and leads to differing opinions by different judges.

"I think the law needs to be clarified and the judges would then be able to give a consistent series of judgments which would in my view be very helpful in terms of policing in Belfast and other places," said Mr Maguinness.

"Otherwise we will have a summer of further disturbances, and acquittals such as these will deter the police from taking decisive action.

"It's not the fault of the courts, it's the fault of the law," the MLA added.

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