Teenager convicted of writing racist slogan on bonfire

 Colin White leaves court after being found guilty of displaying a racist slogan on this loyalist bonfire in Antrim town. Picture by Mal McCann
 Colin White leaves court after being found guilty of displaying a racist slogan on this loyalist bonfire in Antrim town. Picture by Mal McCann  Colin White leaves court after being found guilty of displaying a racist slogan on this loyalist bonfire in Antrim town. Picture by Mal McCann

A TEENAGER has narrowly avoided an immediate jail sentence after being convicted of writing a racist slogan on a loyalist bonfire, in what is believed to the first ever prosecution of its kind in the north.

Colin White (19), of Farmhill in Antrim town, had denied a charge of displaying written material inciting hatred, but was found guilty after a contest hearing at Antrim Magistrates Court on Tuesday.

Mr White was convicted of writing the slogan "we are not racist, we just don’t like n***as" on a bed base which was placed on a bonfire on July 11th last year in the Ballycraigy estate in Antrim.

District Judge Alan White told the teenager that he "didn’t believe a word" of his evidence in which he claimed he had been present at the bonfire on the day in question but had not written the slogan.

Judge White said: "This is a pernicious case in this society. On a weekly basis we have people forced out of their homes in cases stirred up because of this type of behaviour."

He added: "Given his learning difficulties, I am just about persuaded to order a pre-sentence report. That is the only reason he is avoiding immediate custody or a period in a young offender’s centre."

The Ballycraigy bonfire has made global headlines in recent years, with police treating this summer's display of effigies as a sectarian hate incident, after stating in previous years that prosecutions were unlikely because the evidence had been burned.

The Irish News revealed in August that a landmark prosecution was to be brought in relation to the racist material and that police officers had urged Antrim Borough Council to fund the pyre, despite the hate crime probe.

The prosecution case centred on the evidence of Peter Glover, a man who said he had observed White writing the slogan and had taken photographs before making a formal complaint to police.

He said: "I remained in my car and wound the window down. Three people walked up to the bonfire and seemed to do something. I noticed that the person in the middle was writing something on it."

Aaron Thompson, representing White, said that his client was "never closer than 10 or 15 feet" from the bonfire and added that there were other people "milling about."

Mr Thompson asked: "Something being written on it wouldn’t have been out of kilter with what was already there. How did you distinguish between Mr White and the other two, if they were all crouched down?"

Mr Glover replied: "Because the other two people were fairly static in front of it. He was moving along. The people I photographed are the people I saw."

Giving evidence, former Sinn Féin councillor Noel Maguire told the court that he had viewed a Facebook page relating to the bonfire and had "downloaded images and passed them to police."

The court heard that White, who had no previous convictions, voluntarily handed himself in to police, accompanied by his parents, after his image appeared in photographs of the bonfire circulated as part of a police appeal.

The defendant said: "I would help to build the bonfire, I helped last year but not this year. I don’t know who the other two people in the photo are. I couldn’t see what was written on the bonfire and I moved over closer to see it.”

The prosecution lawyer asked: "This is a bonfire that you helped to build. You must have seen who wrote the slogan?"

White replied: "I didn’t."

Convicting the defendant, Judge White told the teenager that he had "not the slightest doubt" he had been responsible for the racist message.

Judge White said: "The first picture was taken by Mr Glover two minutes before the second picture. In the course of that time the slogan was written."

"For the defendant to come here and say otherwise, well, I don’t believe a word of it."

He added: "Custody is the appropriate sentence for people in this climate who are stirring up racial hatred."

However, Judge White ordered a pre-sentence report for January 12th after Mr Thompson, defending the accused, appealed to the magistrate to "take into account his intellectual limitations and the fact he could have followed the group."