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Flag protesters get tougher sentences

Published 13/11/2013




THE Court of Appeal ruled yesterday that suspended jail sentences imposed on two men for rioting during Union flag protests in Belfast were unduly lenient.

Robert McKeown and Stephen Ferris were each handed new 18-month terms, half of which will be spent behind bars.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said deterrent sentences were required for those involved in mob violence.

The court refused to interfere with the suspended term imposed on another rioter, Edward Lynn, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan.

All three were convicted earlier this year for their roles in separate outbreaks of public disorder surrounding the decision to limit the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall.

McKeown (27) of Whincroft Road, Belfast, received an 18-month prison sentence, suspended for three years, for throwing missiles at police during the first outbreak of violence in the east of the city on December 3.

Lynn (22) from Fenaghy Park, Galgorm, Ballymena, was handed a 15-month suspended term for being part of a crowd who attacked police in the same area during a weekly protest the following month. Wearing a Rangers scarf as a mask, he was seen on CCTV footage hurling masonry.

Ferris (19) of Matilda Gardens, Belfast, was sentenced to two years in prison, suspended for three years for rioting in east Belfast a week later. He threw a golf ball at a policewoman and was part of a crowd hurling missiles into the nationalist Short Strand district, the court heard.

Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory QC, appealed the sentences, claiming they were unduly lenient. He argued that all three men should receive tougher and more deterrent punishment.

Delivering judgment yesterday Sir Declan, sitting with Lord Justice Coghlin and Mr Justice Horner, said a significant number of people continue to be part of violent mob activity on the streets of Northern Ireland.

"Such persistent criminal conduct, spread as it is across our community, requires a deterrent sentencing framework," he said.

"Those who chose to participate by presence and encouragement had the option of walking away.

"Those who actually used violence did so as part of the violent disorder. Their conduct cannot be viewed in isolation."

Deterrent sentences should only be suspended in highly exceptional circumstances, while credit will be limited for guilty pleas made in the face of compelling video evidence, Sir Declan pointed out.

In McKeown and Ferris' cases, he held the sentences were un-duly lenient. Both were given new 18-month terms, half to be spent in custody.

However, judges refused to interfere with Lynn's sentence after setting out his experiences as a Territorial Army soldier with a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He had an exemplary service record and now suffers from an adjustment disorder as part of post-traumatic symptoms.

➣ Editorial ➣ P18

* APPEAL: Left, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan. Right, Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory QC