Judge slams secrecy around suppressed report as he clears men over port protest
A judge has thrown out charges against two environmental activists who blocked a road in protest at a High Court ban on a report about how industrial activity was affecting people's health.
District Judge Barney McElholm slammed the secrecy surrounding the legal injunction and backed the protesters, saying: "The voice of the people has to be heard."
Eamon O'Donnell (62), a community worker, and Paul Hughes (28), a youth worker, walked free from the Magistrates Court in Derry after Mr McElholm decided their half-hour protest outside the Londonderry Port and Harbour Commissioners complex was reasonable. The men claimed the verdict had "completely vindicated" their actions.
The pair, both from Campion Court in the Waterside, had been charged with illegally obstructing Port Road on April 25 as they highlighted their concerns about the health of residents in three housing estates near an industrial complex on the outskirts of the city.
A police officer told Mr McElholm that he arrested the two men after they stood for half-an-hour with placards blocking the road, causing a tailback of about two-dozen lorries.
Mr O'Donnell said the protest was to highlight the non-publication of a publicly-funded impact assessment study to determine if there was any link between health issues and heavy industry in the area surrounding the port.
He said in February 2013 Derry City Council agreed - following a presentation by him and his co-defendant - to carry out the health impact assessment.
Independent consultants were engaged by the council and paid in the region of £50,000 to collate the opinions of local residents and industries.
Mr O'Donnell said that three months ago - on the day the report was due to have been made public - the Londonderry Port and Harbour Commissioners sought and was granted a High Court injunction blocking its publication.
He said the area had a long history of rat and flea infestations and he said a consultative group involving the port commissioners, Derry City Council and local residents had all participated in the health study.
Dismissing the charges, Mr McElholm asked if it was reasonable for a public body to prevent the publication of a report so important to the people of the city.
"It was a study commissioned and paid for by the council and involved engaging an independent group of consultants hired to conduct this study," he said.
"I am not privy to what the High Court heard about the conclusions of the study, but it is a matter of intense public interest and should be made available to scrutiny by the public.
"Democracy is an imperfect political model, but it is the best system we have. Nothing else has worked. The voice of the people has to be heard," he said.
Mr McElholm said he did not think a peaceful half-hour-long protest was unreasonable given the circumstances.
"These gentlemen wanted to get across their point. They were frustrated at not having an alternative forum to do so," he said.
"They behaved impeccably towards the police and I do not think it was unreasonable in its duration.
"It is part of everyday life to be held up on the roads.
"I doubt if I will get home without being held up, possibly by one hundred Friesians or something like that. It was a transient obstruction and these two gentlemen wanted to get their point across. I accept their point that nobody was talking to them.
"The Harbour Commissioners' injunction was obtained but the interested parties were not told why the injunction was granted nor what the basis for it was.
"Three months later, after the injunction was granted, no one is aware of the stage the judicial proceedings are at.
"I can understand the frustration of ordinary people, particularly when it comes to matters of public health. The charges are dismissed."
Outside court Mr O'Donnell said: "We feel completely vindicated in our actions and we are now calling on the council to publish the content of this health impact study so that everyone can see it - but we also want its recommendations implemented," he said.
"The health of the local community should be the priority and not businesses, no matter who that business is. We are reasonable people and we would not have done what we did unless we felt we had no other option.
"While we know what we did was right, the law technically said we were wrong - but Mr McElholm showed great insight into this issue and recognised what our protest was about."
Neither Foyle Port nor Derry and Strabane District Council commented on the verdict.