Orangemen pass peacefully down Ormeau

 

A contentious Orange parade passed peacefully down the nationalist Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast yesterday, with a minimal police presence separating Orangemen and protesting residents.

Residents lined one side of the street as the Orangemen passed. In complete silence, they held black flags and placards saying "Parade of Shame". Black balloons flew into the air and lay at the feet of walking Orangemen.

A low drum-beat from one of two bands leading the parade was the only sound to be heard. The Orangemen, from the Ballynafeigh District Lodge, looked straight ahead, avoiding the eyes of protesters on the pavement. It was the first Orange parade down the stretch of road in two years.

In sharp contrast to previous years, RUC officers wore their ordinary uniforms and escorted the parade on foot. No Land Rovers were moved into the area.

Riot police took up positions in the district in large numbers on Sunday but were pulled back after residents said their protest would be silent and non-confrontational, as a mark of respect to the three children murdered in Ballymoney.

The Northern Secretary, Dr Mo Mowlam, praised residents for keeping their word. She said that both they and the Orangemen had shown "a responsible attitude".

The Assistant Chief Constable for Belfast, Mr Bill Stewart, who negotiated the scaling down of the security operation with residents, said he was delighted the parade passed off peacefully. "I think it is an indication of just what can happen with a bit of goodwill from both parties," he said.

The Parades Commission ruling prohibited the playing of music along the Lower Ormeau Road and ordered the march to be over by 8.30 a.m. A bomb scare at the Ballynafeigh Orange Hall, the Orangemen's departure point, delayed the parade until after 9 a.m. Two controlled explosions were carried out on suspect packages left at the hall. The INLA is believed to be responsible.

Several hundred residents, led by spokesmen from the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community (LOCC), waited on the pavement from shortly after 7 a.m. Black flags flew from lampposts and houses throughout the area. Residents held placards saying "Shame", "Freedom from sectarian harassment", "Human rights" and "We support Garvaghy Road". A child held a banner with the message "Play at your own door". Murals throughout the district also condemned Orange parades. A recently-painted slogan said: "What part of No don't you understand."

RUC Land Rovers were parked at the Ormeau Bridge, which marks the start of the nationalist Lower Ormeau area, but the RUC presence in the district was very low until the parade got under way, an hour late due to the bomb scare. Officers then escorted the parade of two bands and some 150 Orangemen. The marchers appeared sombre and walked briskly under a sudden shower of rain. Residents stared at them without uttering a word.

In fewer than 10 minutes the march reached the Havelock Bridge and the leading band launched into The Sash. An older Orangeman taunted a policeman: "This is some laugh, isn't it." In general, the marchers stayed as silent as the protesters.

After the parade had passed, the protesters broke into applause. One man commented: "They're just off the road, and the sun comes back out. Doesn't that just show you."

LOCC spokesman Mr Gerard Rice then addressed the residents, criticising the Orange Order for going ahead with the parade despite the Ballymoney tragedy. He said the residents would continue to oppose the "sectarian parades" and called on the Orange Order to engage in direct dialogue. Mr Rice praised residents for standing in "strong, dignified and peaceful" protest.

He said the Orangemen had been allowed to parade because of the threat of violence, but showed no sense of shame. "The first tune they played when they crossed the bridge was The Sash. There is still this sense of victory, of one community over the other. Our community sees no victory here today." He said it should be the last parade allowed through the district.

In a statement later, the LOCC said: "We restate our community's position that there must be genuine and meaningful dialogue before any further parades take place along the Lower Ormeau Road. Disputed parades can only take place where there is agreement."

Earlier, Mr Noel Liggett of the Ballynafeigh District Lodge said he believed it would be a difficult day for everyone. "It will be a very sombre occasion in the light of recent events," he said.

The Women's Coalition praised the residents, the Orangemen and also the RUC "for responding to the residents' assurances".