Orange Order’s 1,000-day protest clocks up £19m

Twaddell Avenue protest began in 2013 after Parades Commission restricted march

Tommy Hefferon  at the Twaddell Avenue protest camp in north Belfast. Loyalists believe they are victims of a two-tier policing system. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

Tommy Hefferon at the Twaddell Avenue protest camp in north Belfast. Loyalists believe they are victims of a two-tier policing system. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

 

A Parades Commission decision to restrict an Orange march in north Belfast has had lasting consequences.

There have been more than 1,000 days of protest by members of the order, and the impasse has soured relations between police and loyalists, with the latter feeling they are the victims of “political policing”.

PSNI assistant chief constable Stephen Martin denies the suggestion and says Northern Ireland is “a difficult environment in which to police because we are still a society that is unfortunately marked by division and age-old arguments and suspicions”.

A loyalist protest camp is still running at Twaddell Avenue in north Belfast almost three years after Orangemen from three lodges were banned by the Parades Commission from completing their return march past the shops in front of the nationalist Ardoyne area of the Crumlin Road on the Twelfth of July. Flag protests at Belfast City Hall – to demonstrate continued upset at the December 2012 council decision to limit the flying of the union flag – also still happen every Saturday, albeit with diminishing numbers.

Riots and serious public disorder erupted at the two protest sites at the time, as loyalists claimed their culture was being eroded. A number of police officers were injured and scores of arrests were made.

Armed police

On Saturday, at “Camp Twaddell” the gates were locked and there was no sign of any members of Glasgow-based loyalist group Regimental Blues, who recently said they would be “taking over duties” at the site, which is home to a caravan, toilets and banners supporting the Orangemen.

On Woodvale Road, at least a dozen police Land Rovers were in place and scores of armed police were on the ground to cover the Saturday “parade”, one of six weekly protests taking place in the area. Sunday is the exception.

One resident, who does not want to be identified, says he would like to move but knows he would find it difficult to sell his home as “the police are here every night for the protest and the helicopter is up too”.

“The money could be better spent,” he says. “It must be costing a fortune.”

Indeed, the bill for policing the protest is more than £19 million (€24 million), most of which is understood to be police overtime.

Last month, the Orange Order marked 1,000 days of protest with a band parade and speech by county grand master for Belfast George Chittick.

“It’s a denial of the civil and religious liberty our forefathers fought for and all we are asking is let the lodges home and there will be no trouble whatsoever,” Chittick says.

Spencer Beattie, deputy grand master for Belfast, says the Orange Order has a “normal relationship” with the police, there are “no great dramas” and its issue is with the Parades Commission.

William Millen, the worshipful master of the Ulster Special Constabulary, B Specials Lodge, Sandy Row, delivered a speech to some 50 people gathered for the Saturday protest at Woodvale, which ended with a rendition of God Save The Queen. He called for the Parades Commission to resign.

“It’s a shared space, shops used by Protestants and Catholics,” he says. “The police are the in-betweens, the middle men shoved there by the government and the Parades Commission. The sensible solution is get it up the road, let them home.”

A number of people in attendance referred to the PSNI using CS spray at a Junior Orange parade on Easter Tuesday, which is being investigated by the Police Ombudsman.

They also noted a muted response from police to dissident republicans illegally parading in Coalisland, Derry and Lurgan to mark the Easter Rising.

Peace process

Arlene Foster

Loyalist campaigner William Frazer said the police approached loyalists in a different way to republicans, suggesting “the IRA are left to police their own parades”.

“The blame doesn’t lie with the ordinary policemen and women on the ground, it is coming from the top,” he says.

“Loyalism is now where republicanism was with the police force 30 years ago. That is how bad it is. You can’t lecture one side of the community and say to the other side, ‘you work away and do what you want’.”

North Down loyalist Jamie Bryson, who was a leading figure in the flag protests, firmly believes two-tier policing exists but that it is “tilted against loyalists and republicans going off message”.

“If you were a republican against the peace process and even just politically engaged, you would probably see that policing was probably tilted against you as well,” he says.

On Saturday at the City Hall flag protest Orangeman and former soldier John McCall (31) from Lisburn says “nobody should be offended by the union flag”.

“Standing here isn’t going to get the flag back up but it’s letting people know what happened,” he says.

Ongoing disputes

Winston IrvineProgressive Unionist Party

“Ongoing disputes around parades and protests . . . have left confidence and trust in the police within sections of the loyalist community at a worryingly low level,” he says.

“Claims of ‘double-standard policing’ and the perception that the police apply the law differently and inconsistently in loyalist communities . . . are intensified by a sense that senior police leaders have placed a greater emphasis on building a rapport with the republican community, at the expense of the loyalist community.”

Assistant chief constable Martin tells The Irish Times that the PSNI provides an impartial service and approaches all events, including parades, “with an open mind and a consistent decision-making process”.

“Issues of parading, flying of flags, bonfires and paramilitary-type funerals all have the potential to be controversial in nature and there is no absolute policing solution to them,” Martin says.

“While police have a role to play, progress will rely significantly on political and community development. Police action on its own is not sufficient; instead, we all need to work together.”

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