26 guilty over Orange parade protest that sparked rioting
There was heavy security in a court where 25 men and a woman were found guilty of staging an illegal sit-down protest at a disputed Orange Order parade.
Identification evidence was held to be strong enough to convict them all of obstructing lawful activity in public by demonstrating at a Twelfth of July march in 2010.
Fines of £400 were imposed on each of them.
Nine defendants also found guilty of resisting arrest received additional £200 penalties.
A 27th accused was acquitted after challenging claims that he had been recognised at the scene on the Crumlin Road, near the Ardoyne shopfronts, in north Belfast.
Deputy District Judge Neil Rafferty said the protest was likely to have led to later rioting by others in the area.
He said: "It certainly was the match that probably lit what became utterly disgraceful and disgusting and sickening acts of violence in this particular area."
The charges were defended with residents and campaigners claiming they were involved in a peaceful sit-down protest which did not breach a Parades Commission determination.
Two separate bodies operating in the area have been linked to protests against the parade: the Crumlin Ardoyne Residents' Association (CARA) and the Greater Ardoyne Residents' Coalition (GARC). The demonstration at the centre of the case was said to have been led by GARC.
During a four-day hearing at Belfast Magistrates Court, video footage was played in an attempt to identify defendants.
It showed those sitting on the road chanting "peaceful protest" at riot squad officers facing them.
Police witnesses also claimed they could pick out participants, some of whom were from Londonderry, from photographs taken on the day.
Amid tight security for his judgment, Mr Rafferty described the PSNI operation at the stand-off as an example of "softly-softly policing". At one stage, after being told one defendant lived near Omagh, Mr Rafferty commented: "There was a worrying feature that some people travelled great distances to be insulted."
He also stressed that, according to police, the accused were not involved in violence which broke out later in the area.
He added: "In any civilised society, the right protest is respected. Lawful protest is an important means by which citizens can display their displeasure or concern regarding an event.
"With it also comes a responsibility to act lawfully."
Outside the court GARC representatives issued a statement claiming the sit-down protest had been a peaceful expression of the right to live free from "sectarian harassment".
The riots in Ardoyne in 2010 were some of the worst the area has seen.
The trouble broke out after a sit-down protest was removed to allow an Orange parade to pass along the Crumlin Road.
Various missiles including petrol bombs, bricks and bottles were thrown at police and marchers as they were escorted along the controversial parade route.
A policewoman was seriously injured when a concrete block was dropped on her from the roof of the Ardoyne shopfronts. A Spanish man was later convicted of the attack.