Young Conway Volunteers: Band members convicted in 'sectarian song' case
Thirteen members of a loyalist flute band have been convicted of provocatively playing a sectarian tune outside a Catholic church.
On Wednesday, a judge at Belfast Magistrates Court, ruled that they took part in a rendition of the Famine Song, aggravated by hostility, while marching in a circle at St Patrick's Church in north Belfast during a 12 July parade in 2012.
The 13 defendants, all members of the Belfast band, Young Conway Volunteers, denied playing the controversial tune.
They instead claimed to have been performing the Beach Boys hit Sloop John B.
Three of the defendants received five-month suspended prison sentences for their actions.
The other 10 were each bound to keep the peace for the next two years, with a prohibition on engaging in aggressive, provocative or disorderly behaviour.
Fines of £300 were imposed on all of the defendants apart from those tried as youths.
Senior judges in Scotland have previously ruled the controversial Famine Song - which includes the line "The famine's over, why don't you go home?" - to be racist.
The episode outside the church marked the first in a series of incidents at the Donegall Street location.
A judge said it was "outrageous and inflammatory behaviour which could have precipitated serious public disorder."
The defendants had contested a charge of doing a provocative act likely to cause public disorder or a breach of the peace.
During a hearing, defence lawyers played songs by a Swedish folk singer, a Star Trek enthusiast and football fan chants - all to the same tune - in a bid to have their clients cleared.
Paul Shaw, band leader on the day of the parade, was the only one of the accused to give evidence.
He said they had been forced to stop outside the church due to a break in the parade and started up the Beach Boys tune to ward off lethargy among tired members.
He said he had penned a letter to local Catholic parishioners.
"That was to explain the band in no way had any intention to cause any upset to anybody," he said.
"I felt it was my duty as band leader."
However, District Judge Paul Copeland rejected the defence case, finding that the band could have behaved differently as they waited to march on.
"They had choices to make; they didn't stand and wait quietly, they didn't disperse for the short period of time available to them, they didn't march in silence to a drum beat, they didn't sit down, join supporters or family and take a break.
"Instead, I find there was a studied and deliberate piece of conduct which involved their playing and marching not just past this church, but deliberately remaining within feet of the doorstep."
Emphasising the context of the situation at St Patrick's, he said the Famine Song has entered into the "repertoire" of loyalist band music.
It has the potential "as an anthem of sectarian abuse at least, or, at worst, racial hatred", Judge Copeland said.