COUNCIL DIVIDED OVER PERPETRATORS AND POLICE ACTION DESPITE UNANIMOUS VOTE

Council condemns Loyalist feud judge threats

 

ARDS and North Down Council has officially condemned threats made against a local judge as part of the ongoing Newtownards Loyalist feud.

The local authority is also issuing a notice of support for the PSNI, and calls on people to support the police in their push to end the feud.

Despite unanimously voting to condemn the threats and back the PSNI, however, there was still some division among councillors about the perpetrators of the feud and how the police are tackling it.

Some Unionist councillors argued that the violence couldn’t be laid at the door of Loyalists, as the people involved should be regarded as a crime gang instead of loyal subjects of the United Kingdom.

And, while making clear that he supports the police in Ards, independent Unionist Steven Irvine alleged that senior officers elsewhere in the force are protecting one side of the feud.

Newtownards councillor Mr Irvine also claimed that the other side of the feud are merely peaceful protesters who, until recently were being denied bail on ‘dubious charges’ by the very judge who was threatened – though he still voted to condemn the threat and back the PSNI.

At the end of July, graffiti bearing the name of District Judge Mark Hamill and a crosshairs was daubed on the walls of Newtownards Courthouse.

Mr Hamill had denied bail to several men accused of feud-related charges, mainly relating to an incident in April in which a large gang went into the Weavers Grange housing estate where they tore down flags and banners relating to one of the factions involved.

The threat came after months of violence and menaces around Ards – but the judge vowed not to be intimidated by the late-night attack on his court, which also saw several windows smashed.

Last week the issue was debated by Ards and North Down Council, with alderman Stephen McIlveen lambasting ‘some commentators’ who condemn the threat to Judge Hamill, yet ‘in the next breath criticise the PSNI for favouring one faction over another’.

“There’s no evidence provided that this is indeed the case, and only underlines the efforts of the PSNI in tackling criminality on all sides,” said the DUP group leader, adding that their words reminded him of Republicans ‘talking about political policing and a sectarian police force’.

“The attacks on the PSNI and encouragement of vigilante action are as much an attack on the rule of law as those spraying threatening graffiti,” Mr McIlveen continued.

“I can think of nothing so reckless during a time of heightened tension as to encourage people to take the law into their own hands, and to verbally attack the police for seeking to keep the peace.

“Such recklessness risks escalating thuggery to something much more serious. Those in a position of responsibility should be urging restraint; they should be stepping back from Twitter and Facebook.

“It is long since time that these criminal gangs who masquerade as Loyalists left the scene. This is a feud about turf and who controls the spoils of our community’s misery; it needs to stop.”

Backing Mr McIlveen’s points, politicians from several different parties complained that in addition to the fear and intimidation hitting local communities, the feud is harming the economy of Newtownards as people are afraid to shop or socialise in the town.

Said UUP councillor Richard Smart: “The town has not been known for its many positive aspects, but has been marked out by a feud between a few criminals.”

Mr Smart added that public demonstrations seen in recent weeks are counter-productive, as they give publicity to perpetrators of ‘dangerous melodramas’; instead, he said, locals need to back the police and pass along information about the gangs.

Stating that he’d been engaging with his constituents over the feud, Steven Irvine added that he and family members had received threats.

However he also argued that people accused of taking part in the Weavers Grange incident had been denied bail unfairly, and complained that the charge of affray many of them face is ‘more than questionable’ and shouldn’t be used.

“We must defend the rule of law and [condemn] the attack on the court and the threat to Judge Hamill – but where was the call when innocent residents had death threats?” asked Mr Irvine.

He also insisted that the Weavers Grange incident was a ‘peaceful gathering’ that resulted in people denied bail while facing ‘a highly dubious charge’, while others accused of drugs and weapons offences are ‘allowed to walk the streets’.

“Where are those arrests?” he demanded, alleging that high-ranking figures in the PSNI are protecting one side of the feud.

In the end all councillors, including Mr Irvine, voted to condemn the threat while encouraging people to support police actions.