An alliance between the anti-Catholic Orange Order and loyalist paramilitaries has been blamed for the scenes of mayhem in Belfast city centre events last Friday, August 9th, when a nationalist civil rights parade was blocked and then attacked by loyalist mobs.
Thousands of marchers demanding an end to internment became trapped after the PSNI failed to deal with ‘protests’ blocking Royal Avenue. The city centre street had been considered an uncontentious part of the route from north to west Belfast, although large groups of loyalists had been given permission to gather there.
It was ‘protests’ by the Orange Order’s Ligoniel lodges, which precipitated some of the worst rioting Belfast’s city centre has seen in years.
Tourists and Friday night revellers fled in terror. The Sunflower Bar was set upon by a mob who smashed windows while customers were forced to take cover inside in a replay of some of the worst days of the conflict.
But despite a terrifying barrage of bricks, bottles and other missiles, the march ultimately succeeded in reaching west Belfast along a different route, with only minor injuries reported.
Photographs later emerged showing senior loyalist paramilitaries among the rioters who orchestrated the tornado of destruction on Royal Avenue. One UVF figure was later arrested for rioting.
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the “combined forces” of the UVF and Orangemen in north Belfast had been behind the violence. Commenting on the accusation, Orange Order chaplain Mervyn Gibson said it was “absolute nonsense”, and that a range of unionist groups were involved.
“With regard to the protest regarding the Ligoniel lodges, the DUP are involved, the Ulster Unionists are involved, the Ulster Political Research Group, the PUP, the bands, all the loyal orders in Belfast and the local residents. It was a united front of unionism.”
There was also Sinn Fein condemnation for those taking part in the civil rights demonstration which focused on an incident involving a popular republican tune played outside a bar closely linked to the Sinn Fein establishment.
Customers of the Felons Bar in Andersonstown said a band taking part in the demonstration had struck up ‘Take it Down from the Mast’ while outside. The lyric of the 1923 song, dating from the Irish civil war, condemns those who have moved away from republicanism towards treason and betrayal.
Its playing was described as “very hurtful” by the Felons, who also said there was also “cheering and jeering” by anti-internment demonstrators outside the bar.
But march organisers suggested it was the product of an exchange of banter with drinkers standing outside the pub and Sinn Fein’s refusal to support the march.
There was also criticism by march participants of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, whose tweets following the protest condemned what he said was “stupidity masquerading as republicanism”.
In his internet posts, Adams instead praised those who had attended a rock concert in west Belfast as “the majority” rather than “a minority” of ‘amadánism [foolishness].. living in the past’.
Although the parade had been smeared in the mainstream media as a “dissident parade”, a giant turnout saw the involvement of a broad range of political and civil rights activists.
Speaking after the march reached its destination in Andersownstown last Friday, Dee Fennell of the Anti-Internment League praised organisers and marchers alike.
He said that high profile political activists such as Martin Corey and Stephen Murney remained behind bars. Others were being held for up to two years on remand before having charges dropped or rejected by courts.
“It’s a way to get activists off the streets for two years,” Mr Fennell said. “People think internment is a thing of the past, but only the way it is used has changed. It is now more selective.”
The 32 County Sovereignty Movement, one of those involved in the anti-internment march, said they were proud to have taken part. They said the march had “stated loud and clear to the British Government and Stormont quislings that internment was wrong in 1971, was opposed then, is wrong now, and will continue to be opposed.”