Some strange defences may well be mounted if people get accused of crimes under the North's new legislation on crimes motivated by sectarianism. The Secretary of State for the North, Paul Murphy, announced last week that a law to tackle such "vile behaviour" is to be introduced.

Take the loyal citizens who tore down a Tyrone GAA flag from a house in Coleraine last week, wrapped it round a brick and fired it through the living room window, then returned two nights later and fired shots into the house.

Sectarian? "Oh no," they might say, "that flag was hung out there to alienate and intimidate us. We are the victims here." How would they justify this interpretation of events?

They might refer to statements made by Derek Hussey, who said the previous week, in the run-up to the GAA final, that the flying of GAA flags was alienating and intimidating unionists.

Hussey is respectable, an Ulster Unionist MLA and an Orangeman. His home town of Castlederg, Co Tyrone, is festooned with loyalist paramilitary flags, Ulster flags and Union Jacks all summer.

Some of the neighbours of the family whose house was attacked in Coleraine have Ulster flags displayed. No one has felt compelled to wrap these in bricks and deliver them through front windows.

Ballysally's murals of masked men urging residents to remember 1690 haven't been defaced either. Not intimidating, you see.

Last week, Northern Ireland Unionist Party MLA Norman Boyd supported the claim made by UUP Councillor Ivan Hunter that Catholics were to blame for recent trouble in Carnmoney, Co Antrim.

Hunter said Fr. Dan Whyte, whom loyalists had threatened to kill, had "an agenda", demonstrated by his failure to remove graffiti from his church door. The graffiti said 'Kill All Taigs' (KAT).

Loyalists last month staged a noisy demonstration at the local cemetery. KAT-type sentiments were expressed while Whyte was conducting an annual half-hour ceremony which included the blessing of Catholic graves.

Boyd said the trouble could have been avoided if "thousands of Catholics" had desisted from "taking over" the graveyard. He complained that Protestants had been "blessed" as they entered the cemetery, and Protestant graves had been trampled on.

A woman phoned the BBC Talkback programme to agree it was an outrage. Catholics had even spilled holy water on her father's grave, she declared. Presenter David Dunseith asked if this was a serious matter. It certainly was, she fiercely replied: "My father was a loyalist." "There didn't used to be many Roman Catholics in Glengormley", Boyd said. Now thousands of them were moving in, while Protestants moved out. To add insult to injury, the Catholics had "elected a representative of the political wing of the IRA".

A few years back, the Democratic Unionist Party leader the Reverend Ian Paisley told a gathering of Independent Orangemen in Co Antrim, that "the whole of the pan-nationalist front" was "united behind the beast of fascism, the IRA". The UUP brought down the assembly at Stormont because, it claimed, of the ongoing threat of violence from the IRA.

It will be up to prosecution lawyers to prove in court that crimes were motivated by "hatred of the victims' religious faith". There is no legal definition of sectarianism, and, according to a spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), no plans to introduce one.

Indeed, as the Belfast-based Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ) has pointed out, the PSNI does not keep a record of sectarian crimes, despite being criticized for this three years ago by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary.

In its Policing Plan for 2003-2006, the Policing Board identifies sectarianism as a criminal trend, but doesn't set targets for tackling it.

The CAJ has broadly welcomed Murphy's announcement, but its Director, Martin O'Brien, said such laws could only work if they were part of a broader framework. "There is a need for a willingness on the part of the authorities to tackle sectarianism," he said.

"This is about a frame of mind. We already have Incitement to Hatred legislation, but it isn't used. You have to prove intent to incite and that is almost impossible." Paisley's 'beast of fascism' speech was referred to the RUC - which ruled that it wasn't incitement. It said the same when a loyalist told a public meeting two years ago that he looked forward to seeing B52-Bombers over Dublin.

Sinn Fein's Alec Maskey complained last week that the anti-sectarian strategy, which was devised by a committee he set up in Belfast's City Council when he was Mayor last year, was "gathering dust" in City Hall, while sectarian crime continued to afflict the city. "This should be a crusade," he said.

The family which lived in the house in Coleraine which was attacked last week have left their home, after 20 years of living peacefully there.

They were moved to emergency accommodation in a seaside bed and breakfast, and have now moved on, quietly. According to local SDLP MLA, John Dallat, there are few Catholics left in Ballysally. "They have been systematically bombed, petrol bombed and attacked," he said.

"Unionists have covertly encouraged loyalists. The council flies the flag every day, and has one in the chamber. During the summer, the place is coming down with loyalist flags, and at least one family has put out a union flag in a desperate plea to be left alone. There is a serious shortage of houses for Catholics in this area," he said.

The sorry truth is there are Protestants in the North who think there would be no sectarian problem if Catholics would just keep their heads down.

The same goes for homosexuals and racial minorities - look at the trouble there was over the proposal to build a mosque near Portadown.

Loyalist websites now insult black people as well as Catholics.

It is rare that the North leads the way with progressive legislation - however, Murphy's new law will include crimes motivated by homophobia. Such law doesn't operate in England, Scotland or Wales.

Again, however, we might anticipate interesting defence arguments. After all, the DUP tried back in the 1980s to "save Ulster from sodomy" and one of the Free Presbyterian church's key arguments against the Good Friday agreement was that it would lead to "tolerance of sexual perversion." Sodomy was sin - the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy said so. They have a few suggestions as to how to punish the offenders, too.