Sammy Wilson defends right to peaceful protest amid loyalist band parades and disorder

A unionist MP has stressed that people have a legitimate right to protest – so long as it is done peacefully – after the PSNI began looking into parades connected with the current upwelling of loyalist anger.

Wednesday, 7th April 2021, 7:30 am
Updated Wednesday, 7th April 2021, 8:02 am
PACEMAKER BELFAST 05/04/2021 Police have said they are investigating a parade that took place in Portadown, County Armagh, on Monday. Social media footage appears to show a number of masked men taking part in a loyalist band parade. Police said they "received a report regarding an un-notified parade in the Jervis Street area of Portadown earlier today. "Enquires are ongoing to establish the circumstances of this event."

On Monday night three separate marches were staged – in the Ballykeel area of Ballymena, the Co Armagh village of Markethill, and Portadown – all of which were un-notified and are being investigated, said police.

It comes amid several nights of unrest sparked by the decision not to take any action against dozens of Sinn Fein members over the Bobby Storey funeral extravaganza in Belfast last summer.

It also follows a sense of betrayal felt by unionists over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and how it has distanced the Province from the UK mainland.

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Asked about parades as a way of registering dissent, DUP East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said to protest is people’s right – but they must ensure “they are not going to give opportunities for people who want to wreck their own towns”.

He also doesn’t believe paramilitaries have been too heavily involved in the disturbances so far – but fears this may change.

Trouble flared in Ballymena on Monday night, and a video showing a confrontation between riot police and demonstrators circulated online.

In the footage, someone shouts that the police are “Provo-loving b*****ds”, then cheering is heard as a molotov cocktail explodes in front of an officer. Debris and a wheelie bin were thrown onto the M2 motorway, closing it temporarily overnight.

Nine officers were injured during the Ballymena disorder, bringing the total number of police officers injured during recent violence to 41.

In addition, there was more disorder in Londonderry’s Waterside, as well as Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus (more details of the rioting on page 7).

Besides the violence, videos also circulated of bandsmen on the march in Markethill and Portadown, each featuring unidentified bands and streets lined with spectators.

DUP REACTION TO PARADES:

Carla Lockhart, DUP MP for Upper Bann, which covers Portadown, said following the parade in the town: “All lawbreaking is wrong.

“I urge those loyalists, frustrated by the actions of Sinn Fein, to step back. Remain peaceful and stay of the streets. We don’t want young lives criminalised.”

William Irwin, DUP MLA for Newry and Armagh, covering Markethill, said in the wake of the parade in the village: “This is very clearly the outworkings of deeply-held frustration in the loyalist community.

“This flows from the very different treatment of republicans by the police and the PPS, compared with for instance, a family travelling a distance for a stroll on the beach, and in so doing receiving a fine.

“This differential and indeed what may believe to be preferential treatment is very obviously the basis for these protest-style parades.”

He added: “I am a law abiding citizen and I encourage people to vent their frustrations peacefully and through the democratic processes available.”

Mr Wilson said of the recent unrest: “There has to have been a degree of organisation. Now, is it generally organised by paramilitaries or whatever? I don’t know. I think there may be one or two individuals.

“But once you get young people out on the street like this it takes on a life of its own. I’ve known that all through my time in east Belfast, I’ve seen it here during flag protests.

“It becomes the place to go – you hear there’s going to be some trouble and whatnot, and you get everybody then deciding it’s a bit of fun.

That’s why I think, to a certain degree, it’s not all that well organised other than through social media, young people saying ‘we are going to do this’...

“I think if there was paramilitary involvement – organised paramilitary involvement – behind it, the trouble would’ve been far, far more serious than what it is.”

Asked if that may yet follow, he said: “There’s always the danger of that. I hope that doesn’t happen. But you can never predict how this things can eventually develop.”

He added that he sympathises with rank-and-file police, who he described as being “victims of the cowardice of their high-ranking officers who caved into Sinn Fein”.

‘WE ALWAYS BELIEVE IN THE RIGHT TO PROTEST’:

“I think people have the right to protest,” Mr Wilson added. “I know the government is trying to introduce a bill in parliament to stop people protesting.

“As Gavin Robinson said, it’d make tyrants blush across the world. We voted against it.

“We always believe that people have the right to protest but if they’re going to do it, to do it peacefully.”

When it comes to the idea of using parades as a form of protest, Mr Wilson said: “I think that provided they can be sure, when they do exercise that right to protest, they’re not going to give opportunities for people who want to wreck their own towns, wreck their own communities.

“Don’t forget: what’s happening in Carrick, the people bearing the brunt of this, are people who live in loyalist communities. They’re the ones getting their cars burnt.

“The chief constable isn’t feeling any of this.”

It was put to him that some anger, particularly over the NI Protocol, has been focussed on the DUP (a piece of graffiti in Carrick for example reads: ‘DUP OUT / RIP GFA’).

Mr Wilson said: “And when you speak to them, they can’t explain why. What is it the DU did that has made them angry? How’ve the DUP been responsible for any of this? When you actually speak to them, they can’t give you an answer to that.”

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