Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Relations damaged by latest parade row must now be rebuilt

'The PSNI needs to reassure the public that it upholds the law without fear or favour and it must dispel any suggestion that there is a two-tier policing system' (stock photo)
'The PSNI needs to reassure the public that it upholds the law without fear or favour and it must dispel any suggestion that there is a two-tier policing system' (stock photo)

Editor's Viewpoint

It is simple commonsense to recognise that anyone stitching a Parachute Regiment insignia and the letter F on their shirt before taking part in a march through Londonderry ran the danger of causing anger or even trouble. Coming a short time before a former paratrooper known as Soldier F is due in court charged with two murders and four attempted murders on Bloody Sunday, the potential for offence was a foreseeable consequence.

That said, it is the right of anyone to show support for Soldier F. As with all people who come before the court, there is a presumption of innocence, and guilt can only be determined either by a jury or, possibly in this case, by a judge sitting alone, after all the evidence has been heard and weighed.

Therefore it follows that the members of the Larne flute band who were taking part in the Apprentice Boys demonstration on Sunday were not breaking the law in showing their support for the accused. What they could be accused of is showing a lack of appreciation of feeling among the majority population of the city.

Derry has long been held up as a shining example of how protracted negotiation had resulted in agreement between residents' groups and the loyal orders on showing mutual respect during demonstrations.

At times when parading in other parts of the province was accompanied by upheaval and serious disturbance, residents and the loyal orders were able to co-exist relatively peacefully in the city.

What is not clear yet is whether there was agreement on Sunday that no Parachute Regiment or Soldier F imagery would be displayed during the demonstration.

The Apprentice Boys say it was not discussed and East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell of the DUP said any agreement did not cover such imagery. The PSNI and the Bogside Residents' Group insist that there had been such an agreement.

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The outcome has been an ongoing controversy with a senior DUP delegation including party leader Arlene Foster meeting the PSNI yesterday to outline "the loyalist community's" concerns.

Mrs Foster said she was concerned that a perception was building that there isn't confidence in policing. That is obviously a matter of grave concern.

The PSNI has questions to answer, especially in why the band members were stopped and questioned on their way home from the demonstration, if, as must be agreed, they were not guilty of a crime.

Support for Soldier F is an issue of free speech. He is a man innocent of any crime unless legally determined otherwise in the future, and while some people may object to support for him being voiced, that is not a reason to silence his supporters. It would be different if comments supporting the former soldier threatened to cause imminent harm or were defamatory.

Free speech carries responsibility and should not be abused, but the exercise of free speech even when others may object to what is said is much preferrable to its denial. Who would want to live in a country where legitimate comment was forbidden?

The PSNI needs to reassure the public that it upholds the law without fear or favour and it must dispel any suggestion that there is a two-tier policing system. Some wonder why there was no apparent investigation into Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson's comments at a recent hunger strike commemoration.

Most urgently, residents and the loyal orders in Derry must repair the damage done to their relationship.

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