GARC parade against Orange march deal strayed from route to 'avoid a riot', court hears
Organisers of a march protesting at a deal to enable a controversial Orange Order parade through north Belfast strayed from their permitted route to avoid a riot, a court has heard.
Five representatives of the Greater Ardoyne Residents' Collective (GARC) are on trial charged with taking part in an un-notified public procession on September 30 last year.
But a judge was told they changed the direction of their authorised march to ensure the safety of up to 600 demonstrators amid reports that menacing crowds of youths were gathering.
GARC representative Damien Fennell said: "We had two choices - either march young families into a potential conflict situation, or attempt to defuse the situation by taking them along a different route."
Mr Fennell, 35, of Torrens Avenue, is contesting the charge along with co-defendants Gerard Lagan, 55, from Butler Walk; Paul Carson, 52, of Highbury Gardens; Alan Lundy, 38, from Flax Street; and Aiden Ferguson, 36, of Highbury Gardens- all in Belfast.
The case at Belfast Magistrates' Court centres on their protest at an agreement to end a long-running standoff and allow the bitterly divisive Orange parade through the Ardoyne area.
Parades Commission chiefs had granted permission for GARC to hold a counter demonstration the night before - with conditions limiting it to the Estoril Park area of their neighbourhood.
Instead, the protest took a different route around the Ardoyne district before reaching the agreed dispersal point.
Mr Fennell, testifying on behalf of all five defendants, insisted police footage of the march showed participants remained silent and stayed well away from any flashpoints.
He described the event as a legal opportunity for residents to show their opposition to a deal "imposed on the community by Sinn Fein and the Orange Order".
Stressing there had no been prior intention to deviate from the Parades Commission determination, he described how a decision was taken to change route in a bid to prevent trouble.
Prosecution counsel put it to him that organisers still brought people onto the streets despite those fears of violence.
But Mr Fennell claimed it had been a responsible action in the circumstances.
"We had several hundred people at the assembly point," he replied.
"For us to say 'Okay, as organisers we are going home and not giving you any avenue to legally protest', that would probably have increased the risk of civil disorder."
He accepted police were not notified before the protest set off on the alternative route.
A PSNI sergeant in charge of the investigation into the incident told the court there were no issues to prevent the march going along Estoril Park as permitted.
Judgment was reserved following the hearing.
District Judge George Conner said he wanted to take time to consider submissions before delivering his verdict.
Belfast Telegraph Digital