A demonstration by the British National Party against speculative pre-application plans for a new mosque in Hemel Hempstead was countered by two other groups today.
The Unite Against Fascism group and a members of the local Muslim community staged oppositions to the protest in Barnacres Road, where it was suggested the former Nash Mills Methodist Church site could house a mosque in unofficial proposals leaked by Dacorum Borough Council last August.
The BNP presence was led by the party’s organiser for the eastern region Chris Livingstone, who is standing as a BNP candidate in the European elections on May 22.
He said: “We were called in here by the locals from the Hemel Hempstead area. They have opposition to having a mosque built here, we support that. The BNP is supporting the locals with this petition they put together with 1,00 signatures. We have come here today to make a point.
“The quicker we do something about the objections and the more public awareness we raise, the more chance we have of getting the mosque put in a more suitable area. We’re not saying we don’t want any mosque to be built anywhere, but this is not the right place.
“From the locals’ point of view, there’s no parking, and could you imagine minarets and a building of that nature here? It is not inkeeping with the surroundings, plus the noise factor.
“The UAF’s presence is fairly typical and was expected. We are not expecting any trouble from them. We certainly won’t be retaliating if there is, we are here to do a peaceful protest. Let them protest, it’s their right, like it is ours.”
A strong police presence was maintained throughout the demonstration, with each faction separated by barriers manned by officers, opposite and around The Denes shopping centre.
Dacorum’s Chief Insp Glen Channer said at the scene: “Our hopes are that it is peaceful and each side will get to say what they need to say.
“Our job here is to minimise any diruption, keep the peace and prevent any disruption to the local community. We are engaging with both sides and are in good dialogue.”
A large number of supporters turned out for the UAF’s counter demonstration. Participant Ed Colenutt said: “Parties like the BNP exist to create divisions in our society, plain and simple. We have got to stand here and show them that they’re wrong and we won’t accept divisions in our society.
“If we are going to start protesting against things that aren’t going to happen, I could find things that aren’t going to happen every time I walk down the street.
“A lot of people have said this is a ludicrous protest and I completely agree. Wherever the far right show up you need to show they are not welcome and they will not divide communities, and that is why we have to come out today. We would rather not be here, but we have to.”
Members of the Muslim community also arrived to counter the BNP’s protest. One member of the group, who wished to be known as ‘M’, said: “We all live locally and we are concerned about how our area is going. In the last year we have had two far right groups come here. We want to show they are not welcome here.”
Mr Livingstone of the BNP said he was expecting members of the party’s London group to arrive and give talks during the afternoon.
A number of residents living close to the site took interest in the demonstrations.
Ray Bird, of Georgewood Road, said: “The site is an eyesore at the moment but I think we should have a sports centre or play area for children, with extra parking as it is already a nightmare on this road.
“It is not about being prejudiced, it is about being sensible.”
One woman, who did not wish to be named, said: “As long as any mosque didn’t disturb the peace and surrounding community, I can’t see what harm there would be, Big protests like this always rock the boat, and it is not giving a welcoming sign to people who want to come to the area.”
A petition against any future mosque being built on Barnacres Road, set up by 21-year-old Toni-Marie Picton, gained more than a thousand signatures but is on hold until there is any further news about an official application. Ms Picton said she would not be joining in the BNP’s demonstration.
The event had ended by 3pm. Chief Insp Channer added: “The event passed without incident or arrests. I would thank everyone for their support and patience whilst this took place and I’d also thank the demonstrators for engaging with police and maintaining a peaceful protest.”