No matter what decision the Parades Commission took there was going to be a riot in north Belfast on the Twelfth of July.. In recent years the commission has allowed a small number of Orange Order lodges march past the Ardoyne shops on the journey home from the main Belfast parade and each year there was violence fomented by dissident republicans. It was a given.
Dissidents have used the cover of this violence to fire on the police while on another occasion a breeze block was dropped from a height on to the head of a woman PSNI officer. It’s been hairy but just about manageable although police officers and rioters suffered numerous injuries.
This year the commission decided to try an alternative tack. It banned the Orangemen from the Ardoyne shops and told them to terminate their parade on the Woodvale Road 300m short of the shops. So the violence would be loyalist instead of republican this year. No doubt about it. And so it happened.
Waiting for a riot can be an odd business. A long time before the lodges marched up the Woodvale Road on Friday evening a man stood in front of the line of PSNI Land Rovers buoyed on by local loyalists. He was a study. He wore a T-shirt and a pair of floral shorts. Between two fingers he had a cigarette and in the same hand he carried a large British union flag which he waved at the police while shouting, “You are a disgrace.”
In the other hand he carried a can of lager, and there was another can under his oxter. Even in the midst of the fullscale rioting, and even later when he was on top of one of the Land Rovers abusing police, he safeguarded those cans.
Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr said yesterday the violence on the Woodvale Road at the junction with the aptly named Woodvale Parade was "almost animalistic" at times, and he was right.
After the commission judgment the Orange Order said there would be protests and the Twelfth Day would not be officially concluded until the lodges marched past the shops. That created the potential for those awful standoffs we had at Drumcree near Portadown in the 1990s.
At Drumcree there was always a pre-riot protocol to be observed. The Orangemen would march to the police barrier, demand to be allowed through to the nationalist Garvaghy Road, be refused by a police commander, and then parade back up the hill. Then the rioters would pile in.
On Friday at Woodvale the Orangemen with their big banners and the loyalist band and the loyalist supporters marched right up to the police line and just got stuck in with no riot niceties applied at all. It was fast, furious and vicious in the extreme. Police officers were being knocked senseless at the front line as they were assaulted with bricks, bottles, stones and sticks and even with ceremonial swords wielded by Orangemen. In the midst of it all DUP MP Nigel Dodds, fruitlessly trying to bring some element of calm, was knocked out cold by a loyalist brick probably aimed at police officers.
There was also trouble involving both loyalists and republicans in east Belfast and in the city centre on Friday night. Orange leaders are angry and feel hard done by. They, not unreasonably, asked why were they penalised and barred from parading past the shops when each recent year the violence was caused by republicans. One answer here is the flags protests when police did not prevent loyalist demonstrators from blocking roads.
PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott would have been very hard pressed to justify removing the republicans who inevitably would have blocked the Crumlin Road on the Twelfth evening had the commission allowed the lodges march past the shops.
Orange leaders now probably fear that because of this year's trouble this will be the last time they march on the Twelfth evening at Ardoyne.
As part of their sense of grievance and frustration they also point too to how overwhelmingly all the other Orange parades throughout the North are cheerful, trouble-free spectacles, a great big Protestant day for Protestant people. And that generally is the case. People from the South might think from the annual violence at Woodvale/Ardoyne that Northern Ireland is in tumult. It's not. Life goes on. Most people are enjoying the sunshine – those at least that didn't leave the North over the Twelfth. Fact is this is a localised one-day big riot.
Loyalists might yet attempt to start another wave of flags-type protests but that would be even more self-damaging to the Orange Order, loyalism and the image of Northern Ireland. The bigger hope now is that the violence will peter out, as has been the case in recent years following each Twelfth of July Ardoyne rioting. We'll see.
Richard Haass, the former American envoy to Northern Ireland, has agreed to chair an all-party group charged with finding a resolution to parading, flags and the past. Northern Ireland is changing, demographics are changing and Orange leaders would be wise to participate in that enterprise.