KKK gang posed for photo with far-right politician's girlfriend - as 'hate crime' snaps hit international headlines
A group of men who dressed as Ku Klux Klan members posed for pictures with the girlfriend of the UK National Front leader, who once joked about torching a mosque in Co Down.
Sharon 'Shaz' Mellor was out enjoying drinks with her boyfriend Tony Martin, leader of the far-right group, when they encountered the group dressed as Klan members on Saturday night.
Images of the group of at least nine draped in sinister garb, carrying wooden crosses and posing outside an Islamic prayer centre in Newtownards have been beamed around the world, making headlines on CNN international news and in The Washington Post and The Guardian.
A photograph showing one of the group with Mellor has also appeared online.
Gillingham native Mellor, who now lives in Newtownards, said there "were quite a few (photos) taken by random strangers" before she was able to recall posing alongside the man dressed from head-to-toe in a white robe splashed with fake blood.
"A few blokes were dressed up for Halloween, (I've) no idea who they were," she told the Belfast Telegraph.
"That's all there was to it. I wasn't with them, I merely posed for a picture.
"I haven't hurt anyone, neither do I plan to."
Three years ago Mellor "joked" about having set fire to the same Islamic prayer centre on Greenwell Street in response to a Britain First Facebook post mistaking Newtownards town hall for the place of Muslim worship.
"Since when has this been a 'new' mosque," she replied to Britain First.
"I've been ranting about it for three years ffs, even tried burning the f***er down."
There is no record of any such arson attack, and last night Mellor admitted the comment was made in jest.
Her ex-soldier partner, who was elected chairman of the hate group last month, was unable to recall what pub the pair were in when the image was taken as he is not from the area.
"I was out with my girlfriend and we saw some guys in fancy dress," he told this newspaper. "Shaz posed for a photo."
Martin, who is from Croydon and has called for an end to immigration and even deportation to free up homes in the UK, sparked outrage after being snapped in Stormont's Assembly chamber earlier this year.
The image was taken during his trip to celebrate the Twelfth of July when he was deputy leader of the National Front.
The Kosovo war veteran, who has also been branded a homophobe for criticising the Met Police's support of Gay Pride, insisted "everyone was in good spirits" on Saturday night as he defended the rights of the mystery men hiding underneath the sinister robes.
"I support anybody's right to wear whatever fancy dress costume they like. I'm old enough to have pleasant memories of less PC times," he added.
The group was seen enjoying drinks in Daley's pub on George's Street at around 8pm.
By 9.45pm they had made their way to JD Wetherspoons, over half-a-mile away.
One punter, who believes the "prank" has been "misconstrued", said the group didn't stay long.
"They were having a laugh and a carry on, they were well behaved," he said.
"Everybody was dressed up - there was nobody in the bar running around terrified that the KKK had arrived."
A spokesman for Wetherspoons said the men were refused entry by door staff, but pushed past them. "They were told by bar staff that they would not be served," he said. "They remained in the pub for five minutes, unserved, and then left."
One local claimed that one of the men "gave a fascist salute" to his friends as they imitated members of the KKK, who were responsible for lynchings of black people and other race hate attacks.
They are understood to have ended the night at a fancy dress party in Jax Bar & Restaurant, just yards away from the mosque and close to other bars.
"Everyone was getting pictures with them, people just saw it as fun," one reveller said. "There was someone dressed as Hitler too, but sure it's just Halloween."
Not everyone dismissed the incident so easily. A local Muslim who regularly uses the prayer centre said everyone in the small faith community has been left feeling very uneasy after seeing the "shocking" photographs.
"We have been targeted before by different groups. Just the other week a group of men stood outside the mosque and filmed as up to 70 came in for Friday prayers," he said.
"It's very worrying but I hope it was just fancy dress and not anything more sinister because we are already anxious.
Yesterday residents of Newtownards were split on the issue.
"I think it was deplorable and totally inexcusable, I would lean towards viewing it as an act of terrorism," one man said.
Another resident said the culprits "knew exactly what they were doing", adding: "It was already inappropriate but then they decided to go to the mosque and actively pose for disgusting photographs."
Others were sympathetic to the group, and insisted it was just a distasteful stunt.
"I have a sick sense of humour, and I can see why people are annoyed, but I think it's selective outrage," commented one woman.
Another said she believed the mosque was a turning point for the "harmless banter" that may have gone too far. "People in this town are more scared of the men wearing balaclavas and yet our MLAs and police don't seem so keen to find out who they are," she added.
One local, referring to Prince Harry who was snapped wearing a Nazi uniform at a private party in 2005, questioned how anyone is supposed to know where to draw the line.
He said: "I saw someone dressed as a suicide bomber on Saturday, and there was a Jimmy Savile running around Bangor - you can't just pick one out to be offended by."
- Read more: 'We are treating this as a hate crime' - photos emerge of gang dressed as Ku Klux Klan outside Islamic centre in Northern Ireland