Concern over decision to ban return Orange Order parade
More than 4,000 police officers on duty to try to maintain the peace over a tense Twelfth of July
A loyalist bonfire on the outskirts of Belfast. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA
After the Eleventh Night bonfires of last night and ahead of protests and a possible north Belfast standoff tonight, Northern Ireland is once again anxiously and uncertainly wondering if it will manage to stumble relatively safely through the Twelfth of July parading period.
As tens of thousands of Orangemen prepared to set off on their parades throughout the North today, there were appeals for a peaceful Twelfth from the police, the politicians, the Parades Commission and the Orange Order itself. But a decision by the order to resist a key commission ruling has once again ratcheted up tensions in Northern Ireland.
There was no doubting the commission’s determination earlier this week banning three north Belfast Orange lodges from returning from the main Belfast parade past the flashpoint Ardoyne shops this evening has infuriated and frustrated Orangemen. The violence of recent years was caused by republicans so why had the Order to suffer, they asked.
The anxiety and uncertainty lie in whether the calls for a peaceful Twelfth will be heeded or whether that anger will be manifested in Orange and loyalist protests and disorder reminiscent of the recent flags demonstrations.
PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott has decided to take no chances by drafting in an additional 630 police officers from Britain, who were involved in the G8 security operation, to assist his officers in the coming days.
Those references to the G8 and the flags protests have an important resonance. The flags violence damaged the image of Northern Ireland internationally, while the success of the G8 summit restored face.
There is a concern now that if these protests descend into trouble and communal strife in the days or weeks ahead, as happened over the flags, the damage to Northern Ireland plc will be severe.
“People are nervy,” agreed a senior police source. “The success of the G8 gave us something to build on but this could haul us back. It’s just very difficult to tell at this stage whether people have the appetite and stomach for another period of protests or whether they just want to get through this.”
The Order certainly upped the ante yesterday by opening up the possibility of a standoff between Orangemen and the PSNI on the Woodvale Road in north Belfast close to the Ardoyne shops interface.
“The Twelfth day celebrations will only be complete when all our brethren, sisters, bandsmen and supporters are home safe,” said Belfast deputy grand master Spencer Beattie.
There also would be widespread protests if the three Ligoniel lodges did not parade home past the Ardoyne shops.
“The Protestant unionist loyalist community has had enough – the rot stops now. Yes we are angry, there will be protests over the coming period, but it is our earnest intention and prayer that those protests will be peaceful,” he said.
Mr Beattie put down a disclaimer that some will interpret as a washing of hands: “The Parades Commission has created this crisis, the consequences rest firmly at their door.”
He said the Parades Commission ruling would “halt progress” towards a shared future in Belfast and would set back community relations.
One reporter wondered was the Order shaping up for a Drumcree-type standoff?
“Certainly we don’t want another Drumcree, nobody intends to be here in 15 years’ time,” said the order’s chaplain, the Rev Mervyn Gibson.
But, he added, “the three Ligoniel lodges, until they get home the rest of the parade is not over”.
Later yesterday evening we drove to a press conference at PSNI headquarters noticing the scores of police 4x4s on the roads, gearing up for a major security operation that will involve more than 4,000 police officers. Police had a soft time at the G8 but they may earn their overtime today and in the days ahead. As well as north Belfast, there is also concern about the nationalist Short Strand in east Belfast.
Assistant chief constable Will Kerr, who is head of today’s police security operation, said there was a “lot of talk and speculation” of a standoff on the Woodvale Road this evening when the return lodges are prevented by the commission’s determination from proceeding on up the Crumlin Road past the shops. “But it is very difficult to separate the talk from the real intention,” he said.
Call for calm
He appealed for calm and warned against anybody inciting violence. As regards the possibility of loyalist paramilitaries getting involved, he said: “We don’t have intelligence of an active desire by paramilitary groups to exploit the situation and that is encouraging.”
Mr Kerr said that the situation was “volatile” and that police would uphold the Parades Commission’s determination. “There is no ambiguity about that at all.”
He appealed for “responsible behaviour and responsible leadership” today “so that we can get everyone home safely”.