Concern grows as 10,000 expected to protest at restrictions on flying Union flag at City Hall
Belfast braced for day of demonstration as traders count cost of year of disruption
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness: this week told the Assembly he believes the UVF, along with elements in the Orange Order are behind the rally – an accusation denied by the order. Photograph: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland
Up to 10,000 loyalist protesters and 40 bands will parade today through the centre of Belfast to mark the first anniversary of the removal of the union flag from City Hall.
Loyalist have been incensed at the decision by the council last year to restrict the flying of the flag to just 18 designated days per year in line with British government policy.
The march has been given the go-ahead by the Parades Commission subject to a string of preconditions. But fears remain that trouble could reignite in the city centre or at the scene near Ardoyne where a Twelfth of July parade was prohibited from passing a nationalist flashpoint.
Parade organisers, styling themselves the Loyal Peaceful Protesters, have been told to provide stewarding, to clear the centre of Belfast by 12.30pm and to ensure there are “no undue stoppages or delays” once the protest gets under way.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness this week told the Assembly he believes the UVF, along with elements in the Orange Order are behind the rally – an accusation denied by the order.
First Minister Peter Robinson says he hopes the demonstration will quickly clear the main trading streets of the city on what is one of the busiest pre-Christmas shopping weekends of the year. “It is a legitimate right of people to protest to show that one year on that they’re still opposed to the flags decision of Belfast City Council, ” he said. “But I ask them to have their protest in a way that does the least possible damage to the traders of Belfast.”
Businesses in the city centre were badly affected by the flags protests during 2013 and by trouble associated with the Twelfth parades, especially in north Belfast.
The leader of the Progressive Unionist Party which is linked with the UVF has accused Mr McGuinness of trying to “deflect attention from terrorist activity being organised from within the republican community”. He said: “The peaceful protest on Saturday is about demonstrating the injustices working class Protestants are experiencing at the moment, including the demonisation of their culture and tradition.”
Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers has said she wished the parade was not taking place.