The Parades Commission stands accused of rewarding loyalist violence after it ruled that a sectarian, coat-trailing march can pass along the nationalist Springfield Road in west Belfast this weekend.
The commission said 50 members of the Orange Order’ could march through a peaceline gate onto the Springfield Road during the controversial Whiterock parade on Saturday.
It follows a series of peaceful overtures from nationalists in recent weeks. Last month, the anti-Catholic Orange Order reported that it received a letter from Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams supporting their right to parade. Last week, a ground-breaking deal was reached after residents in north Belfast agreed to allow a sectarian parade to pass through the traditionally republican Ardoyne area.
However, there is little sign of agreement on the controversial Whiterock Road parade. Last September a rerouted parade ended in some of the worst violence witnessed in many years.
Loyalist gunmen fired more than 150 shots and threw 167 blast bombs at police and soldiers after Orangemen were blocked from marching through the Workman Avenue peaceline gate and on past nationalist homes on the Springfield Road. Unusually, Orangemen in sashes and traditional dress engaged wholeheartedly in subsequent rioting.
While 50 Orangemen will parade through the peaceline on Saturday, the remainder of the march - totalling 16 bands and 700 Orangemen - will go through a nearby industrial estate.
All banners and insignia relating to UVF man Brian Robinson have been banned from the parade, although such conditions are routinely ignored.
Springfield Road residents spokesman Sean Murray said the commission had “given in to the threat of loyalist violence”.
“This is a total slap in the face to those of us who advocated dialogue and compromise,” he said.
“The Orange Order and the loyalist paramilitaries have been rewarded for the violence last year.
“The message this sends out to nationalists is that violence and intimidation is the only thing the Parades Commission listens to.
“We offered compromise and dialogue and have been totally betrayed.
“This is a parade that goes past nationalist homes carrying banners commemorating UVF men who have murdered innocent Catholics.”
Gerry Adams urged the Parades Commission to review its decision.
Mr Adams accused the commission of capitulating to a renewed threat of loyalist violence.
“They have compounded the problem,” he said.
“Rather than seeking to promote an accommodation through dialogue the Parades Commission has instead promoted the idea of a parade through the threat of further loyalist violence.
“This is entirely the wrong approach.
“Sinn Fein have asked the Parades Commission to review what we believe is a deeply flawed determination.”
The Springfield Road march is being viewed as the new-look Parades Commission’s biggest test to date.
Seven new members, two of whom are Orangemen, were appointed to the body in controversial circumstances last year. The appointments remain the subject of an ongoing legal challenge by nationalist residents groups.
Mr Adams, who met the Parades Commission in Belfast yesterday, urged that a satisfactory compromise was to allow the parade through the industrial ‘Mackies’ site.
“Rather than visit two Orange parades on the people of the Upper Springfield they should come up with a determination that upholds the rights, on the one hand, of the Orangemen but more particularly of the [nationalist] host community. And there is an alternative route through Mackies site,” he said.
Mr Adams also said that Orange leaders should recognise the rights of nationalist residents and he hoped that “wiser voices within unionism” would see the commission’s ruling as a “stupid decision and will seek to play their part in calming the situation”.
When asked would there be trouble if the commission did not change its determination Mr Adams replied:
“Well, we will do our best, but we do our best against decisions that actually reward trouble. This trouble last year was arguably the worst rioting by loyalists - loyal to who? - in this city perhaps since the 1970s.”
Meanwhile, both the PSNI and the Parades Commission have come under fire over their handling of a controversial march in County Armagh two years ago.
The Police Ombudsman mounted an investigation into criticism of the PSNI handling of a sectarian Protestant parade in Lurgan on the evening of July 13 2004.
Nationalist politicians were outraged when officers redirected marchers past the point legally permitted by the Parades Commission.
A car blocking the intended route was cited by police as the reason for not fully enforcing the commission’s determination.
However, the PSNI was criticised for not taking immediate action against the driver, a loyal order supporter.
A file was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions who later decided not to prosecute the motorist.
SDLP Policing Board member Dolores Kelly, who lodged the complaint with the ombudsman’s office, said the party’s position had been “vindicated”.
“The SDLP always argued that the police had failed to uphold the Parades Commission determination regarding the march,” she said.
Ms Kelly said there was “plenty of space” for marchers to get past the car which was blocking the route.
“Worse, the owner of the car was never brought to court in the end,” she said.
“We are determined to ensure that the law is upheld and not broken. I hope that the police learn a lesson from what has happened.”