17 men cleared of unlawful protest at Ardoyne Apprentice Boys parade
Seventeen men were acquitted today of staging an unlawful protest during a loyal order march in north Belfast.
A judge dismissed the case against them after being told they had simply gathered in Ardoyne to watch the parade.
The defendants have now vowed to sue the police and public prosecution service for allegedly breaching their right to assembly.
They appeared before Belfast Magistrates' Court charged with taking part in an un-notified protest on December 1, 2012.
It was alleged that their actions during an Apprentice Boys parade amounted to a breach of public processions legislation.
Even though no placards or signs were on display, a prosecution lawyer contended that by lining up and facing the road they were staging a form of demonstration.
Only members of the Crumlin Ardoyne Residents Association (CARA) had notified the Parades Commission of its plans to stage a protest in the area.
But it was submitted that the defendants' acted separately on the day.
Appearing in court on a summons were: Paul Carson, 49, and Aiden Ferguson, 33, both of Highbury Gardens; Damien Fennell, 31, of Duneden Park; Gerard Lagan, 52, of Butler Walk; Peter Lagan, 53, from Jamaica Street; Daniel Lundy, 32, of Russell Place; Joseph Montgomery, 19, and Joseph Jude Montgomery, 45, both of Rosehead; Kevin Clarke, 34, of Saunderson Court; and James Osborne, 20, of Prospect Park - all in Belfast.
Alongside them were: Kevin Collins, 35, Church Fields; Daniel Doherty, 21, and John Doherty, 28, both of Bamford Park; Sean Hanna, 50 and Brendan Kelly, 21, both of Carnfinton Park - all in Rasharkin, Co Antrim - and Anthony Lee, 38, and Micheal McLaughlan, 52, both of Fisherwick Crescent, Ballymena.
A prosecutor claimed some of them were recognised by police as having previously been at the scene with a separate organisation: the Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective (GARC).
He argued that their behaviour, while silent and peaceful, was still a form of protest.
Some of the defendants told police they were waiting for a bus, but failed to board one when it stopped at the scene, the court heard.
With video footage of the incident played in court, defence lawyers argued the men were entitled to stand on a footpath and observe the parade.
All seventeen defendants declined to give any evidence at the hearing.
But ruling on the case today, District Judge George Conner held that it had not reached the criminal standard of establishing guilt beyond all reasonable doubt.
On that basis the charge against each of the men was dismissed.
Jubilant defendants clapped and cheered in court as they were acquitted before turning their attention to possible civil action.
Mr Fennell, a spokesman for GARC, claimed: "There was absolutely no evidence of any protest. This was a political show trial because of our perceived beliefs."
He said people from Ardoyne and Rasharkin had been subjected to sectarian parades and were entitled to observe the Apprentice Boys march for any breaches of Parades Commissions determinations.
Mr Fennell also pledged: "As a result of this each of the defendants is going to be taking a civil case against the PSNI and PPS. This trial was an attempt to impinge on our human right to assembly in our area."