25 June 2009 Edition
Stoneyford loyalists' convictions for attack during BBC TV filming
A little justice at long last
THREE loyalists from Stoneyford village in Antrim were convicted at the start of this month (2 June) for their part in an attack on Sinn Féin Assembly member Paul Butler, party adviser Jim Gibney and members of a BBC TV camera crew as they filmed an interview in the village in March last year.
Butler was, ironically, being interviewed about the ongoing campaign of sectarian intimidation being waged by loyalists against the small Catholic population in the area when the loyalists carried out their brazen assault.
Butler and Gibney made statements to the PSNI and persisted with the case, ensuring that loyalists Alan Scott, David Campbell and Colin Smyth were brought before the courts and, for the first time in the 15-year campaign of intimidation, were found guilty.
JIM GIBNEY describes what life is like for Catholics in the predominantly-unionist village eight miles outside Belfast where, for years, Orange thuggery has ruled and the forces of the state left nationalists to their fate.
FOR too many years, certain loyalists of Stoneyford village and those who use it as a base have been a law onto themselves.
Some of them killed at least one Catholic teenager with impunity; others threatened civil war if Orangemen did not get marching down the Garvaghy Road.
Every June for three months loyalists turn the village into a shrine to the Union Jack.
For 15 years they have preyed on Stoneyford’s small Catholic population.
In a prolonged ‘pogrom’ they drove numerous Catholic families from their homes, occasionally using petrol bombs and mostly under cover of darkness.
Their preferred form of intimidation – because it was safe, handy and personally cost- free – was their own menacing presence in the form of Orange Order and flute band marches through the village. Like poisonous smog, ‘Kick the Pope’ band music wafts regularly from the village Orange Hall and envelops the nearby homes of Catholics.
Like peacocks, they strutted around the village on foot or patrolled in their own cars.
As if out for an innocent Sunday afternoon stroll, they stopped outside the house of a Catholic family and lingered in silence – sinister silence.
Those watching the lingerers knew them from the village a few yards away. They knew their swagger, their names, and their insidious pedigree. The family knew that they themselves were next on the target list, next to endure a violent campaign, to watch as their dream home and life in the picturesque countryside turned into a living nightmare for their family.
What the Catholics of Stoneyford knew the police also knew – because they told them. Yet, for almost 15 years, no state agency, police or military touched the perpetrators or protected those they sought to hurt.
No unionist politician spoke out in defence of those being driven from their homes.
Some publicly associated themselves with these loyalists. There were votes to be had in unionist Stoneyford. And votes were more important than the lives and well-being of local Catholics.
There were no votes to be canvassed in Lisburn Courthouse on Tuesday 2 June when three Stoneyford loyalists sat before the magistrate, Justice Watters.
There was not a bowler hat, Orange Sash, Union Jack, Lambeg drum, flute or drumstick in sight.
There was no menacing presence, no threatening language, no sinister looks, no bully-boy behaviour.
There were just three nervous, jittery, pathetic figures: Scott, Campbell and Smyth.
Sinn Féin MLA Paul Butler and I were key witnesses and the loyalists sat closeby, huddled together, hands between their legs, silent, sheepish, fearful to look our way.
Their entrance to the court had been anticipated from early morning. They arrived late afternoon, having spent the day in hiding in an anteroom, afraid to be seen in the court’s public arena.
Despite their contrite demeanour, they were hardly facing the hangman. Unlike the experience of Catholic families forced to flee Stoneyford, they did not face anything as life shattering.
They faced relatively minor public order charges yet they threw themselves on the mercy of the court, begging for a lighter sentence by pleading guilty.
You could be forgiven for thinking that their solicitor had consulted a Thesaurus, for he launched himself on a soliloquy of regret on their behalf. His ability to discover numerous ways to say ‘sorry’ failed to impress the magistrate who had endured the day-long stifling heat and who was keen to draw from her own Thesaurus to ridicule and convict those before her.
Scott, Campbell and Smyth are the first-ever loyalists arrested and charged as a result of intimidatory behaviour in Stoneyford village.
They were there because of statements made against them by Paul Butler and me.
In March last year, they tried to force us out of Stoneyford while Paul Butler was being interviewed for a BBC Spotlight special documentary about the intimidation of Catholics in the village.
These statements, plus the determination and good work of the PSNI’s area commander, Davy Moore, ensured that on this occasion the rule of law penetrated the hitherto protective ring of steel around Stoneyford loyalists.
It was a good day for the Catholics of Stoneyford, past and present. A good day also for justice and the local police. And that is how it should stay.