Loyalist Famine Song bandsmen convicted 'outrageous' sectarian behaviour outside Catholic church
Thirteen members of a loyalist flute band have been convicted of provocatively playing a sectarian tune outside a Catholic Church.
A judge ruled that they took part in a rendition of the Famine Song, aggravated by hostility, while marching in a circle at St Patrick's Chapel in north Belfast.
He said: "This was outrageous and inflammatory behaviour which could have precipitated serious public disorder."
Three of the defendants received five-month suspended prison sentences for their actions during a Twelfth of July parade back in 2012.
Fines of £300 were imposed on all but two of the youngest accused, while binding over orders were also handed down.
The defendants, members of the Young Conway Volunteers, fought a charge of doing a provocative act likely to cause public disorder or a breach of the peace.
They denied playing a controversial tune, declared racist by senior judges in Scotland, which includes the line 'The famine's over, why don't you go home?'.
Instead, the band members claimed to have been performing the Beach Boys hit 'Sloop John B'.
Played to the same music, that song has the lyrics 'I feel so broke up, I wanna go home.'
The episode outside the church marked the first in a series of flashpoint incidents at the Donegall Street location.
Among the defendants were: Aaron McCrory (29) of Argyle Court; Alan Adlam (42) from Dewey Street; Christopher McKay (24) of Wallasey Park; Bryan Green (27) from Canmore Court; Stephen Smyth (22) of Tennent Street; William Carlisle (30) from Ainsworth Avenue; Jonathan Airdrie (25) from Columbia Street; Paul Shaw (35) of Geoffrey Street; Thomas Gibney (36) from Lawnbrook Avenue - all in Belfast - and Ryan Aitcheson (28) of Ravelston Avenue in Newtownabbey.
Charges were also brought against three youths at the time of the incident.
During a contested hearing at Belfast Magistrates Court, defence lawyers played songs by a Swedish folk singer, a Star Trek enthusiast and football fan chants - all to the same tune - in a bid to have their clients cleared.
Paul Shaw, band leader on the day of the parade, was the only one of the accused to give evidence.
He said they had been forced to stop outside the church due to a break in the parade and started up the Beach Boys tune to ward off lethargy among members tired from the previous night's celebrations.
Insisting there was never any plan to offend, he revealed that he later penned a letter to local Catholic parishioners. "That was to explain the band in no way had any intention to cause any upset to anybody," he told the court.
However, District Judge Paul Copeland rejected the defence case, finding that the band could have behaved differently as they waited to march on.
"They had choices to make; they didn't stand and wait quietly, they didn't disperse for the short period of time available to them, they didn't march in silence to a drum beat, they didn't sit down, join supporters or family and take a break," he pointed out.
"Instead... I find there was a studied and deliberate piece of conduct which involved their playing and marching not just past this church, but deliberately remaining within feet of the doorstep."
Emphasising the context of the situation at St Patrick's, he said the Famine Song has entered into the "repertoire" of loyalist band music.
It has the potential "as an anthem of sectarian abuse at least, or, at worst, racial hatred," Judge Copeland held.
Convicting all 13 defendants, he imposed five-month prison sentences, suspended for two years, on McCrory, McKay and Airdrie.
The other 10 were each bound over to keep the peace for the next two years, with a prohibition on engaging in aggressive, provocative or disorderly behaviour.
The £300 fines were imposed on all of the defendants apart from those tried as youths.
Outside court, a lawyer for Shaw and one of the teenagers confirmed their intention to appeal the verdict.