The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has dropped an appeal against a judge’s rejection that charges relating to the desecration of a war memorial and wreaths were hate crimes.
However, while the application to appeal was triggered by concerns raised by DUP MLA for the area, Diane Forsythe, and party colleague, Justice Spokesperson Joanne Bunting MLA, neither were informed of the withdrawal until contacted by the press.
Ronan Campbell, 23, of Corcreaghan Road, Kilkeel spat and urinated on a memorial to Robert Hill Hanna VC then lifted a wreath and walked towards Reivers House, where the Schomberg Society is based and threw a traffic cone at a window.
Days later Campbell again urinated on the memorial then removed three wreaths which were found ripped up in a river.
Offending occurred on two days five days apart in October 2022.
During interview, he showed no remorse nor offered an apology.
The PSNI treated these hate crimes which was agreed by a prosecutor at Newry Magistrates’ Court.
District Judge Eamonn King disagreed and sentencing Campbell to 40 hours Community Service and 12 months Probation, remarked: “The symbols you damaged, removed and insulted were of one side of the community … you identified as another side and took umbrage…The mob would demand I put you in prison. But I’m convinced your remorse is genuine. My job is not to listen to the mob.”
A PPS spokesperson later confirmed an application had been made to the Court of Appeal over “the Judge’s decision that the offending did not constitute motivation by hostility on religious grounds”.
Last week, when asked for an update a PPS spokesperson replied: “As the Magistrates’ Court is not a court of record, we were reliant upon a limited record of proceedings and our understanding of the basis for the Judge’s decision.”
The main reasons the Judge did not find hostility based upon religion proven were no clear motivation and the absence of criminality towards church property or religious symbols, “rather they were memorials to war veterans of all denominations and faiths.”
The judge recognised the insult and disrespect towards the traditions and symbols of the community most affiliated to them, which was “to be condemned in the strongest terms”.
Whilst the PPS initially understood the Judge had, in effect, found offending was religiously motivated (but, nevertheless, failed to find the statutory aggravator applied), “additional information indicated that was not so … The judge’s conclusion was fact-specific and in our revised assessment, the Court of Appeal was unlikely to interfere … It would not have been appropriate to further pursue the appeal and it was withdrawn in November 2023.”
Press asked why, in absence of a formal court record PPS did not seek to rely on the contemporaneous media coverage which amounted to a public record?
A spokesperson replied: “In addition to the prosecutor’s records, we reviewed all available press commentary. While important and often informative, press commentary is not equivalent to a formal court record … The decision not to proceed with appeal was not a consequence of recording arrangements (but) from additional information in which the judge elaborated on his decision (and) provided additional detail not articulated in the live court hearing.”
The PPS was also asked why it didn’t release a statement about the withdrawal given the public and political reaction.
The spokesperson advised: “As is normal procedure, the appeal was withdrawn by the PPS in open court, therefore available to attending Press to report.”
The PPS informed the Schomberg Society before the withdrawal, in line with responsibilities to victims and “we have also offered a meeting to further explain the position, should they wish, and that offer still stands”.
Responding to this, Diane Forsythe MLA, said: “This is incredibly disappointing and will require further scrutiny. If desecrating a war memorial is not hate crime there is something seriously wrong.
“We unveiled the VC statue in Kilkeel, such was the fear of attack, a local organisation installed CCTV. The war memorial and service memorial have been attacked twice. This is vile. For anyone to wreck the wreaths and be urinating on the memorial is grotesquely offensive.”