SDLP East Derry MLA John Dallat described those taking part in a flags protest in Garvagh last Friday night as ‘an affront to humanity’ after receiving complains that members of the Catholic community claiming they were called ‘Fenian gypsies’ and their birth right questioned.
Upwards of 100 loyalists took part in the flag protest for more than an hour.
Mr Dallat said: “These so called protestors had their faces covered either with scarves or hoods making it impossible to identify who they were and that raises serious questions as to the legality of these so called flag protests.
“In addition, this was supposed to be a ‘white line’ protest to keep it within the realm of legality but there were so many individuals on the white line traffic was brought to a standstill anyway.
“Any elected representative who gives any credence or respectability to this kind of naked sectarian and racist gathering has forfeited any right to be taken seriously in the democratic process. I don’t know of anywhere in the free world where this kind of beastly behaviour would be accepted or listened to.”
The SDLP man claimed there was fury in the community about the protest.
“People are very angry at the continuing disruption but they are more furious over the foul language used by those cowardly individuals who had their faces covered,” he said.
“The people who complained to me are hard-working and living within the law. They are up early in the morning and working late into the evening.
“They don’t deserve the kind of verbal abuse meted out to them by a mob of individuals who have contributed nothing to society and don’t begin to understand that the anti-hate laws exist to deal with such people.
“While there appears to be confusion about the legal standing of these protests there should be no confusion about the anti-hate laws which are designed to deal with racism and sectarianism of the kind experienced and independently verified in Garvagh on Friday night.
To describe it as a night of shame would be an understatement.
“Police were present and complaints were made and I sincerely hope these are followed up but the wearing of masks makes this difficult.”
Sinn Féin councillor, Ciaran Archibald also condemned an alleged iincident which took place during the protest.
He said: “Two nurses travelling to work were verbally abused after the car they were travelling in was hit by a ball as they passed protesters, some hooded and masked.
“These protests are supposed to be peaceful but in reality many people in the community feel intimidated by them and that is unacceptable. Incidents such as that on Friday night cannot be ignored and must be addressed in an appropriate manner.
“People have a right to go about their business and travel to and from their work without fear of harassment.”
Coleraine DUP councillor George Duddy has refuted Dallat’s claims.
He says that the DUP have been behind meetings with local people in a bid to stop the flag protests.
Mr Duddy went on to say that Dallat’s comments only “heighten tensions” in the Coleraine area.
“I was at the protest myself on Friday night.
“There was a large police presence and a large crowd of well over 100 people. It was a peaceful, dignified protest.
“I feel that had there been any need, the police would have taken the appropriate action. The Tactical Support Group of the PSNI were there, there was no shouting or jeering that I heard.”
Mr Duddy went on: “ Mr Dallat should concentrate on the big issues - his party openly supported naming a play park after a hunger striker and voted against NCA, these are the issues he should be dealing with.”