Councillor: I took part in illegal UVF/UDA-linked parade – and I don’t care
A PUP councillor has acknowledged being at an illegal band parade on Friday night – adding that he does not care about the consequences for himself.
Russell Watton, representing Coleraine town, said there had been some UDA / UVF involvement in the protest, but that it went “wider” to take in disaffected loyalists in general.
Councillor Watton – an ex-UVF man who spent 1976 to 1989 in jail over explosives offences and wounding with intent – told the News Letter that the parade had acted as a kind of “release valve” for loyalist anger.
The protestors carried anti-NI Protocol banners, and went from Harpurs Hill in east Coleraine to the central Diamond area, where he laid a wreath at the war memorial.
He estimated that 500 people were in the parade, plus others watching from the roadside, and that four bands took part (with no identifiable band insignia on display).
It was organised by the “Coleraine Loyalist Coalition” he said. Asked who this was, he replied: “Now you’re asking me. They want to remain anonymous.”
He was asked whether the coalition was a united UDA/UVF front. He said “they would be involved” but that “it would be wider than that”.
Councillor Watton went on to credit these groups with helping to quell recent unrest in the Ballysally area of Coleraine – and added that “to my mind a parade was far, far the lesser of two evils”.
Asked if he was concerned about openly taking part in an un-notified gathering, he said: “No, they can do what they want to me – I’m past that... I’ve had my day in prison.”
The PSNI said: “Police are aware of an un-notified parade in Coleraine on Friday evening. Organisers of parades are required to give formal notification of their intentions. Warnings were given to participants, and an evidence-gathering operation is in place.”
They added officers will review footage gathered and consider any breaches of either the Covid regulations, or the laws dealing with band parades.
Councillor Watton said he had wanted the organisers to put in a notification to the Parades Commission, but that it was clear they “had no intention” of doing so.
As to why, he cited the Bobby Storey funeral extravaganza last June 30 on the Falls Road, Belfast, when thousands of people turned out in giant crowds (including dozens of Sinn Fein politicians) despite the coronavirus lockdown.
On March 30, the PPS said no-one would face any action whatsoever over the spectacle, largely on the basis that the law was too complicated to understand.
When it was put to councillor Watton that there was no social distancing apparent at the Friday night parade, he said: “It’s all up the left now mate.”
He said “when it comes to brass necks, they [Sinn Fein] are the elite – do as we say, not as we do”.
He said he was particularly unhappy with a statement from East Londonderry Sinn Fein MLA Caoimhe Archibald.
She had said her party “will be raising the issue of illegal protests with the Chief Constable at the Policing Board, including [the] protest in Coleraine”.
She continued: “This was clearly an organised protest which saw hundreds of people on the streets and number of bands in a clear attempt to intimidate and raise tensions in the local community.
“In recent weeks we have seen a number of these reckless and irresponsible protests taking place and the dangerous escalation of tensions has been very alarming.
“I will be asking what evidence gathering the police engaged in and what action will be taken against the people involved.”
In response to councillor Watton’s criticism, the party press office responded: “This was an illegal parade. Permission for it was neither sought from or granted by the Parades Commission.
“It was designed to stoke up community tensions and to be provocative.
“We have seen all too often how such illegal parades and demonstrations can descend into violence leading to police officers being injured, cars belonging to workers and families being destroyed and people being left terrified in their homes.
“Rather than condoning or actually taking part in illegal parades, those in positions of responsibility and leadership should be calling for an end to all illegal parades and demonstrations.”
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