Relatively little violence at the ‘Tour of the North’ parade in north Belfast on Friday night is being cited as evidence that this year’s marching season could be the quietest for several years.

Last year the PSNI opened fire with plastic bullets after an Orange Order march passed through the area and the hardline ‘Continuity IRA’ threw blast bombs at the police.

An agreement between residents of the nationalist Ardoyne area and the Protestant marching orders over a contentious stretch along the Crumlin Road was seen as a breakthrough.

Loyalists agreed that this year, the return leg of the parade along the Crumlin Road will consist of a single band, single banner and would involve only a maximum of 75 marchers.

In return, residents pledged to scale down their protest.

Unlike previous years a low-key police presence accompanied the parade with senior republicans and loyalists acting as stewards.

However, missiles were exchanged as 70 Orangemen and a loyalist band passed Ardoyne just before 9pm.

Golf balls, stones and a firework were thrown as the parade passed a nationalist protest, which was kept well back by senior republicans.

Several people on both sides are understood to have sustained minor injuries.

Both sides said their talks would not be derailed.

“This was the most peaceful parade in years and that is down to the hard work done on both sides,” Ardoyne residents’ spokesman Joe Marley said.

He said the vast majority of residents supported dialogue with the loyal orders.

Loyal orders spokesman Tommy Cheevers said: “This was a success for everyone.

“There was sporadic trouble but it is a lot better than what has been witnessed in recent years.

“We now hope to get back into dialogue with Ardoyne residents next week.”

The progress was praised by Parades Commission chairman Roger Poole, Sinn Féin assembly member Gerry Kelly, and Holy Cross priest Fr Aidan Troy.

Meanwhile, fears of destroying the breakthrough Ardoyne agreement forced the Parades Commission to postpone making a decision on a second controversial loyalist march.

A ruling on the Whiterock parade is expected later this weekend.

After Orangemen were banned from marching along the nationalist Springfield Road last year, loyalists rioted for five nights. More than 60 people were arrested in violence that saw paramilitaries and the PSNI open fire more than 300 times.

Speaking after meeting the Parades Commission to discuss the Whiterock parade, west Belfast Sinn Féin councillor Tom Hartley said: “Dialogue is very important as the only way to resolve the issue is through agreements between residents on both sides of the Springfield Road.

“There is an alternative route which I believe has been on the table for the last three years. I hope that sense will prevail as this is an opportunity to find a solution to a long-standing problem.”

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© 2006 Irish Republican News