Complaints that a Northern Ireland assembly member glorified terrorism during a speech last summer have been dismissed by a standards watchdog.
Unionists claimed senior Sinn Fein member and Old Bailey bomber Gerry Kelly’s language during a speech at a republican commemoration in Castlederg, Co Tyrone, broke Stormont’s code of conduct.
Mr Kelly addressed a republican demonstration marking the deaths of two IRA bombers killed by their own device near the town.
One Democratic Unionist alleged his remarks could encourage dissident republicans to commit further violence.
Scotland’s Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life Stuart Allan was tasked with investigating as an independent acting commissioner.
“The Acting Commissioner has concluded that Mr Kelly was entitled to express his opinion on the matters dealt with in his speech and that no aspect of that speech could reasonably be taken to conflict with the principles and duties set out in the code or to amount to the encouragement of terrorism,” a Stormont committee report said.
Permanent assembly standards commissioner Douglas Bain has decided he could not deal with the complaint because his membership of the Parades Commission which adjudicates on contentious marches, like Castlederg, would lead to concerns about his impartiality.
The committee of MLAs added: “The Acting Commissioner has concluded that - taking account of all the circumstances relating to the organisation of the parade and the unveiling of the memorial - there is no evidence that Mr Kelly was acting in his official capacity as a member of the assembly on that day.
“The Acting Commissioner therefore concludes that Mr Kelly was not in breach of the code of conduct.”
North Belfast assemblyman Mr Kelly has denied glorifying terrorism. DUP MLA Tom Buchanan alleged his remarks “rang in the ears” of dissidents during a speech at Stormont.
However, in the Acting Commissioner’s opinion, even if it had been demonstrated that Mr Kelly was attending the event in his official capacity, a breach of the code would not have occurred.
Mr Allan’s report said the right to free speech was protected under the code and by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
“Neither of these authorities protects it unconditionally, but the ECHR, with which the code must be consistent, allows for it to be limited only in exceptional circumstances, for reasons of public safety or the prevention of disorder or crime, most notably,” the assembly’s Committee on Standards and Privileges said.
It added: “He does take the view, however, that the speech will have caused distress and hurt to those within the Protestant or unionist tradition, particularly those living in the Castlederg area.
“As for the suggestion that Mr Kelly, who is not alleged to have failed to comply with the ruling of the Parades Commission himself, is responsible for irregularities on the part of other marchers, the Acting Commissioner judges it unreasonable to construe his mere presence as an unqualified endorsement of their behaviour.”
In August 1973 Gerard McGlynn, 18, and Seamus Harvey, 22, died when their bomb exploded prematurely near the town.
On the anniversary of their deaths last summer Mr Kelly said: “They were ordinary young men in the extraordinary circumstances of the early 1970s who rose to the challenge of the time. They had a vision of equality and freedom and they knew the risks they were taking to achieve it but they could not stand idly by or leave it to others.
“It is a harsh reality of resistance that we lose some of our best activists during armed conflict and Seamus and Gerard along with their other comrades whom we remember here today, paid with their lives.”
The Tyrone Volunteers Day Parade commemorated republicans who died during the Troubles, including the two IRA men.
Several hundred bandsmen and republican supporters took part in the march. Hundreds of protesters, including some family members of IRA murder victims, staged a counter-demonstration.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers had urged organisers to call off the march, saying it was “causing great hurt” to victims of terrorism.
Mr Kelly has argued that he was honouring comrades who gave their lives in the struggle for Irish freedom. He said the centre of Castlederg was supposed to be a “shared space” and almost 20 unionist marches had taken place in the town so far this year.
The senior republican also said there must not be “a hierarchy of victims which would discriminate against republicans and nationalists not just in life, but in death also”.
Mr Buchanan said he was disappointed with the committee ruling.
“There is no doubt that the vast majority of the public in Northern Ireland were appalled by the gross insensitivity displayed by republicans in Castlederg.”