Parade calm augurs well for progress on Belfast Agreement


Orange Order parades were held throughout Northern Ireland yesterday without major incident, in what was described as the quietest Twelfth of recent years. It was seen as likely to enhance the prospects of political accord. A major joint security operation was mounted by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British army at the Ormeau Bridge in Belfast in the morning, to enforce a decision by the Parades Commission to reroute marchers away from the mainly nationalist Lower Ormeau Road.

A metal barricade on the bridge was reinforced by cement blocks and razor-wire. Soldiers with guns at the ready stood guard with the police behind the barricade.

The Orange lodges of the Ballynafeigh District, led by their district master, Mr Noel Liggett, marched as far as the barricade before stopping to hold a religious service. Stewards ensured strict discipline was maintained: a man who chanted slogans was swiftly removed and his Orange collarette taken away from him.

The Ballynafeigh district lodges stayed at the bridge for an hour and then diverted to the nearby Ormeau Park to meet the main body of the Belfast parade. As a gesture of solidarity with their Ballynafeigh brethren, the main parade marched to Ormeau Park instead of its usual destination at Edenderry. A sharp attack on the Parades Commission and its chairman, Mr Alastair Graham, was launched by the Democratic Unionist Assembly Member, Mr Nigel Dodds, who was the main speaker at the Belfast parade.

Dubbing it "the charades commission", Mr Dodds told the 30,000-strong crowd the body had "blundered and stumbled from one crisis to the next, creating tensions, exacerbating divisions and deepening grievances". He added: "Mr Graham is out of touch, out of ideas and should be thrown out of office".

The grand master of the Orange Order, Mr Robert Saulters, condemned the commission as "an undemocratic, unelected little quango". He warned that if a district was again banned from joining its county parade, "then the county will join with the district".

Later, the Ballynafeigh Orangemen marched out of the park to the Ormeau Road and paraded to the barricade again before returning to their Orange hall to disperse peacefully.

Mr Saulters expressed delight at the size of the turnout in Belfast which was larger than previous years. He attributed the size of the crowd to the rerouting order by the Parades Commission.

He said: "It is a tremendous public response, I haven't seen crowds like this in a long time, it shows you the way they have unified the Protestant people around Belfast".

However, the South Belfast Sinn Fein councillor, Mr Sean Hayes, dismissed Mr Saulters's claim that the Ormeau Park could be used again as the destination for the Twelfth demonstration.

"That is absolutely ridiculous," he said. "Bobby Saulters should come into the real world and realise that this is not 1969, it is 1999. The days of the Orange Order imposing its will on the people of Belfast are over."

Thousands of Orange marchers and their supporters at Portadown, Co Armagh were told by a senior member of the order that the Parades Commission was a government-created monster which was out of control.

Mr John McCrea, an assistant grand master, was speaking at the rally which was switched from Killylea to Portadown in support of the Drumcree protest.

Marchers also heard the Co Armagh Orange grand master, Mr Denis Watson, pledge that no deal had or would be done over the Drumcree standoff. The Portadown district master, Mr Harold Gracey, remained at Drumcree for the day.