Editor's Viewpoint: Law must act if KKK stunt in Northern Ireland was calculated
The images of a group of men dressed in Ku Klux Klan outfits posing outside an Islamic prayer centre in Newtownards has rightly drawn widespread criticism. Police have confirmed that they are treating it as a hate crime, and that also is the consensus view of community representatives who have been united in their condemnation.
However, there are others who suggest that this was a Halloween prank gone too far and there are reports that the group was seen in a local pub around the same time without causing offence.
If it was a prank - and that may be a very charitable view - it was in exceedingly poor taste. Was it really by coincidence that the group posed for photographs outside a building where a pig's head was left at the doorstep last year and where homophobic graffiti was painted on a wall.
To the casual observer it would appear that there are people in that locality who are anti-Islamic. Whether or not they had anything to do with the KKK episode, it is hardly surprising that Muslims in the area feel under some threat.
Hate crimes, unfortunately, are not unknown in Northern Ireland, directed by each community towards each other, as evidenced by an arson attack on a woman and her three-year-old child in Magherafelt earlier this month, and also from each community towards immigrants.
That is why it is important that people not wishing to cause offence act responsibly. Of course at Halloween there will be people dressed in certain costumes - the KKK ones and the person seen in Bangor dressed as Jimmy Savile - which are in bad taste no matter what the intent.
Yet there is no law that says you may not be offended. What one person may see as an ironic or topically humorous outfit could be viewed very differently by others. That is where common sense must be exercised. This newspaper stands firmly behind the principle of free speech. People must be allowed to exercise that principle by word or deed provided that it is not designed to cause hatred or deliberate outrage or to encourage others to engage in unlawful acts.
It is up to the PSNI and PPS to determine if any incident is in breach of existing legislation and we fully support that legal process as the proper way to determine and address hate crimes. Those in the KKK outfits in Newtownards could easily prove their innocence, if indeed they were, by going to the police and explaining their actions.