Belfast celebrates achievements

Sun, Mar 18, 2012, 00:00

Giant, grinning versions of Northern Ireland golfing champions Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke dominated the St Patrick’s parade in Belfast city centre.

This was a day geared towards celebrating local achievements: “2012” was the theme, marking a big year for Northern Ireland, including the Titanic centenary in April and the Irish Open, coming to Portrush in June.

It was an exuberant, good-natured parade, and Lord Mayor of Belfast Niall Ó Donnghaile said it was “a great display of the cultural wealth of the city”, adding: “I’m delighted to see the east Belfast Mission’s Irish language class carrying their bi-lingual banner”.

Afterwards, 8000 people packed into Custom House Square for a concert featuring the X Factor’s Sophie Habibis, a delicate wreath of shamrocks painted on her face, and the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, who drove the crowd wild with a bagpipe rendition of Snow Patrol’s hit song Chasing Cars.

There had been concerns about possible street disorder in the Holyland, a predominantly student area of South Belfast, close to Queen’s University.

On St Patrick’s day in 2009, drunken students threw bottles and stones at police riot lines and set fire to cars, and since then there have been ongoing problems with anti-social behaviour in the area.

Fears of unrest were heightened because St Patrick’s day fell on a Saturday this year. 

Both the University of Ulster and Queen’s University promised to discipline any student involved in St Patrick’s weekend disorder. 

However, a substantial police presence, together with a zero-tolerance approach to on-street drinking, appeared to keep the situation under control.

On Friday, eight people were arrested in the area for a range of anti-social behaviour. But by 9.30pm yesterday, the streets of the Holyland, although littered with broken glass, were quiet and virtually empty, with just a few house parties going on behind closed doors.

Serious concerns had also been raised over a contentious loyalist band parade in Armagh on the evening of St Patrick’s day.

The parade, organised by the Cormeen Rising Sons of William flute band, was opposed by nationalist politicians.

Sinn Féin MP Conor Murphy had criticised the Parades Commission decision to let the march go ahead, arguing that it would damage community relations in the city. 

He said: “this should have been a no-brainer for the Parades Commission but they somehow failed the test and the PSNI’s crazy assertion that there was no local concern over the march defies belief”.

Quincey Dougan, a spokesman for the Cormeen band, said they would make “extra efforts” to ensure the march was trouble-free, and added that if all went well, he hoped that the parade could become an annual event in the city.

Tensions were heightened when a suspicious object was discovered in the College Street area of Armagh earlier in the day.

A number of homes had to be evacuated, and the main St Patrick’s Day parade had to be diverted. Army technical officers examined the device, and carried out a controlled explosion. It was later declared to be a hoax. 

However, the loyalist parade, which included around 40 bands, passed off largely peacefully, with only a small number of arrests for disorderly behaviour.