The first controversial sectarian parade of the season passed off without incident on Easter Monday, but residents in north Belfast have already issued stark warnings over the determinations of a newly-appointed Parades Commission.
There was a large Crown force presence as loyalist marchers made their way past St Patrick’s Catholic Church on Donegall Street, the scene of several sectarian provocations in recent years.
The band had been ordered to play hymns while passing the church and to play no music if church service taking place. In the end the band played a single drumbeat as it passed in both directions.
Frank Dempsey from the Carrick Hill Concerned Residents’ Group said it had been a tense week for residents. He welcomed the lack of music in the parade but said it should become a permanent arrangement.
“Nobody wants this resolved more than we do. We don’t want to be standing out here but they can’t just pick and choose when they are in a good mood,” he said.
Problems in the area escalated two years ago when one band was seen to walk in circles in front of St Patrick’s, while playing the sectarian ‘Famine Song’.
Since then, efforts to hold loyalist marchers to the very limited restrictions imposed by the Parades Commission have generally failed, with marchers receiving wide latitude from the PSNI and the courts.
This week’s parade was the first since talks between the loyalist Apprentice Boys organisation and Carrick Hill residents ended last year without agreement.
Sinn Fein said the peaceful outcome was an example of “common sense prevailing”.
Meanwhile, the Greater Ardoyne Residents’ Collective said it did not stage a protest against the march through their community on Monday in deference to a local Easter commemoration, although spokesman Dee Fennell said loyalist parades through his district are “totally unacceptable to the vast majority of the people of this area.”
GARC said the decision to permit the Apprentice Boys’ parade to go ahead “trampled over the right of Ardoyne, Mountainview and Dales residents to live free from sectarian harassment and intimidation”.
It also criticised a ruling last week (ultimately reversed) to ban Catholic church-goers from protesting outside St Patrick’s church as loyalists marched outside.
“This determination by the Parades Commission, an incoming commission, does not bode well for a peaceful summer,” Mr Fennell said.
“The consistent theme of commission determinations since its inception has been to acquiesce to the three pronged attacks on this community by loyal orders, political unionism and loyalist paramilitaries”.
He warned such actions could lead to a “long, hot and volatile summer for all of us”.
There have already been violent confrontations at the Twaddell interface with Ardoyne, where loyalists have maintained an intimidatory presence to demand the right to march at will through the nationalist area. This week three nationalists were arrested and charged with removing a banner from the camp.
There was tension elsewhere as loyalists began erecting paramilitary flags and removing election posters, notably without any PSNI interference. Both incidents in north Belfast and south Belfast have been linked to a power struggle by distinct groupings of loyalists.
One supposed “dissident” loyalist group has been blamed for hoisting flags close to a north Belfast interface near Tiger’s Bay and outside a local children’s playground and council-run leisure centre Separately, a gang of 20 or 30 loyalists was seen to remove Sinn Fein election posters from lampposts on the Ormeau Road in south Belfast, and replace them with flags associated with the paramilitary UDA.
“Some of this gang clearly had been drinking alcohol and local residents said they felt very intimidated by their actions,” said Sinn Fein assembly member Alex Maskey.
“The PSNI were on the scene but despite the gang committing a criminal offence and acting aggressively the PSNI failed to take any action.”