Man who wrote racist message on Belfast bonfire avoids jail
The first person in Northern Ireland to be convicted for stirring up hate by writing a racist message on a loyalist Eleventh Night bonfire avoided jail on Tuesday.
Colin White (19), of Farmhill in the Ballycraigy estate in Antrim town, in December, was found guilty of displaying written material which was threatening, abusive or insulting, intending thereby to stir up hatred or arouse fear, after he wrote a message on a divan bedstead at the Ballycraigy bonfire in the town on July 11, 2014.
He was back at the same court for sentencing on Tuesday and White, who had a previously clear criminal record, was put on probation for 18 months.
A prosecutor told the court on Tuesday a man contacted police in relation to a racist slogan which said: 'We're not racist, just don't like n---as".
Photos appeared in the press and White came forward to police to say he was in the pictures and during interview admitted he was at the bonfire but denied writing the phrase and had contested the matter.
Defence barrister Aaron Thompson told Tuesday's court the case has attracted much media interest and White lost his job at Belfast International Airport.
Mr Thompson said the case comes at a time when there have been a number of racist attacks in the area and he admitted the type of behaviour at the bonfire engenders such incidents.
He said White, who attended a "special" school and has "mental health issues", has now admitted he wrote the slogan but Mr Thompson said his client is very easily led and "would do anything if it makes him think he would fit into a peer group".
The barrister said White's partner gave birth to a premature baby at Christmas and the child is still in hospital.
Mr Thompson said White now has the stigma of being seen as an "outright racist" by many people as a result of a "stupid spur of the moment act to fit in".
And he said his client was "stupid enough" to spray the words in broad daylight when somebody taking photos was nearby although he said "none of that explains away the public horror of all this".
Sentencing White, District Judge Alan White, said he had to give credit for the defendant's clear record but said had the defendant continued to deny what he did he would have had no hesitation in sending him into custody.
Judge White said he took into account White's "learning difficulties" and accepted he may have been influenced by others "in pursuance of their hateful agenda".
He said it had been "hateful behaviour which is causing so much distress in this community".
During the court contest in December a man said he took photos of the Ballycraigy bonfire and noticed the divan with no writing on it but after three people approached it he could see that White was the only person whose arms were moving and afterwards there was graffiti which said: 'We're not racist, just don't like n---as".
Judge White said at that court in this community "in the current climate" it seemed custody was appropriate for people stirring up racial hatred.
However, he said the only thing making him pause was the defendant's learning difficulties and without that he would have been going straight to jail.
Judge White said in December White's was guilty of "pernicious conduct" and said in a society were there are almost weekly race attacks and people being put out of their homes and said such incidents can be "stirred up by this type of behaviour".
Opening the case in December, prosecutor David Russell said it was alleged White was the person who had written the words and several photos were supplied to the court by witness Peter Glover who said on the afternoon of July 11 he went to Ballycraigy because of publicity about the bonfire's size and height and took photos with his iPhone through the window of his car.
He said he went to Ballycraigy bonfire because it was supposed to be "a special one" and said he saw a person wearing a white tee-shirt, white shorts and orange-topped socks, later identified as White, write on the divan which had no writing on it moments earlier.
Mr Glover told the court: "I realised they had written a racist slogan and I was interested in taking a photo of the person who had done this".
The witness later contacted police and made a complaint.
Defence barrister Aaron Thompson said in December White was interviewed by police and accepted being at the bonfire but denied spraying anything on the divan which he had just gone over to to see what was written on it but Mr Glover said: "I saw him performing the action of writing. I saw the divan was clear before and he was there and it certainly had writing on it immediately after his departure."
Mr Thompson said he was suggesting Mr Glover made a mistake and there were a number of people in the area who could have done the writing but the witness denied that.
Former Sinn Fein councillor Noel Maguire told the court he contacted police about displays on the bonfire which he saw on Facebook.
David Russell said there was a tricolour on the bonfire featuring a smiley face and the words 'Keep Antrim Tidy. KAT" which Mr Maguire said he took to mean 'Kill all T--gs'.
The bonfire also contained Irish tricolours daubed with messages and a gallows with an effigy of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams attached.
The court heard after police put out an appeal and the photograph was in circulation, White went to police to say he was in the picture but denied writing the words.
Aaron Thompson said there was no evidence to link White to anything else on the bonfire.
Taking to the stand in December, White said he helped build the bonfire as he lived nearby and said he saw police were looking for the person in a photo and realised it was him and said he didn't know anybody else in the photos.
He told the court he just went up to the divan to read the message, saying: "I was just standing there, I couldn't really see it away back."
Judge White said he believed Mr Glover's evidence was "honest and accurate" and he said he had no doubt the defendant had written the words on the divan.
Convicting the defendant, the judge said he didn't believe "a word" of the defendant who came to court to say he didn't do it and also didn't know anybody around him.