Nationalist residents' group members get conditional discharge over parading deal protest
FIVE members of a nationalist residents' grouping have been convicted of participating in an unlawful march protesting at a deal to enable a controversial Orange Order parade through north Belfast.
Damien Fennell, Gerard Lagan, Paul Carson, Alan Lundy and Aiden Ferguson each received a conditional discharge for taking part in the un-notified public procession.
The defendants, all representatives of the Greater Ardoyne Residents' Collective (GARC), insisted they only strayed from their permitted route on September 30 last year to avoid a riot.
But District Judge George Conner ruled: "I'm not satisfied that there was a risk present as suggested, or at all."
The case at Belfast Magistrates' Court centred on GARC's protest at an agreement to end a long-running stand-off and allow the bitterly divisive Orange parade through the Ardoyne area.
Parades Commission chiefs had granted permission for the residents' body 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.
Fennell (35) of Torrens Avenue, Lagan (55) from Butler Walk; Carson (52) of Highbury Gardens; Alan Lundy (38) from Flax Street; and Aiden Ferguson (36) of Highbury Gardens - all in Belfast - contested the charge against them.
During their trial a PSNI sergeant in charge of the investigation said there were no issues to prevent the march going along Estoril Park as permitted.
The defendants stressed, however, that 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.
They claimed the deviation was due to circumstances beyond their control.
Fennell, who testified on behalf of all of the accused, said they were faced with a choice of either taking young families into a potential conflict situation, or attempting to defuse the situation by leading them along a different route.
He described the event as a legal opportunity for residents to show their opposition to a deal "imposed on the community by Sinn Féin and the Orange Order".
Organisers had no prior intention to deviate from the Parades Commission determination, but acted responsibly in a bid to prevent trouble, according to his account.
Fennell emphasised that police footage of the march showed participants remained silent and stayed well away from any flashpoints.
Delivering judgment Mr Conner accepted the demonstration had remained peaceful throughout.
But backing the prosecution case, he held: "I'm not satisfied that they (the defendants) were forced, either through circumstances or the actions of others.
"The evidence is just too tenuous and vague."
Imposing a conditional discharge on all five men, he told them it will remain in place for 12 months.