Hundreds of ‘11th night’ bonfires were set alight by loyalists across the North last night as tensions mounted ahead of ‘the Twelfth’, a day when over 600 marches are staged by the Protestant Orange Order to mark a 17th century battle victory over Catholics.
Nationalists appealed for calm amid hopes that the violence witnessed last year at Ardoyne in north Belfast will not be repeated.
Despite Sunday’s Drumcree parade passing off without incident, there are fears trouble could spark in Ardoyne and towns like Dunloy, where disputes linger over the handling of the Orange Order parades.
Republicans would do all in their power to ensure that the coming days passed off peacefully, Gerry Adams said last night.
“I would once again appeal to people over the coming days, in spite of provocation and in spite of the continuing insistence of the Orange Order to march in areas where they are clearly not welcome, to remain calm,” he said.
“As in previous years republicans will do all in our power to ensure that the coming days pass off peacefully, but this is not the sole responsibility of republicans. The British government and the PSNI have a big responsibility. The Orange Order and unionist political leaders must play their part in ensuring that the violence traditionally associated with the Twelfth parades is averted this year.”
The British Army will not be present on the streets of Belfast for the annual Twelfth demonstrations today for the first time since 1970, it has emerged, but will be on standby for any potential conflict.
Former Belfast lord mayor Alex Maskey said: “We have heard much from unionist politicians in recent days about the Twelfth being a celebration of Protestant culture.
“I would challenge them to tell the community in the Short Strand what is cultural about attacks on homes or cultural about the placing of republican heroes and icons on 11th night bonfires for drink and drug-fuelled unionist mobs to dance around.”
One of the most low-key Orange Order parades at Drumcree since 1995 passed off without incident in Portadown on Sunday.
There was no British Army presence, while the 180 PSNI involved represented a significant drop on numbers of British forces present in previous years.
A single police helicopter flew overhead as the parade made its way to the church.
As Orangemen made their way to Drumcree Parish Church but were banned from the nationalist Garavghy Road, Breandan Mac Cionnaith, of the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition, said that the march which once sparked loyalist sieges, widespread roadblocks and rioting “should be allowed to rest in peace”.
“The Orange Order applied for 2,000 members to parade to Drumcree but only 400 have turned up,” he said.
“I think that tells the story.”
In a reference to the Ulster Gaelic football final between Armagh and Donegal, Mr Mac Cionnaith said: “Most people have their focus on a different set of people dressed in orange elsewhere today.”
Their spokesman, David Jones, insisted that the reduced size of the march was a return to the district parade of old and that they remained determined to secure a return parade through the Garvaghy Road.
Sinn Féin assembly member John O’Dowd was among a small number of nationalists who turned out to witness the Orangemen filing past on the uncontentious route to the church.
Mr O’Dowd said people were witnessing a return to normality.
“Drumcree in the sense of the tension of previous years is over,” he said.
“The Orangemen are getting on with their business and the residents are getting on with theirs.”
However, Portadown Orange district master Darryl Hewitt demanded the resignations after the parade was stopped for the ninth year running.
“Once again, we are disappointed by the negative determination from that unaccountable body, the Parades Commission,” he said in an address on Drumcree Hill.
“This is even more the case when we remember both the public and indeed private utterances of the secretary of state [Peter Hain], who promised us in Portadown and the wider Orange family that this is a new commission with new ideas and a new urgency on parading.
“However, I have in my possession the same old ‘no’ determination from a ‘No Parades Commission’.
“The call must go out today from this platform and indeed from Drumcree Hill for so-called Protestants who are members of the ‘No Parades Commission’ to back their culture, heritage and traditions or else do the honourable thing and resign from this biased, discriminatory anti-parading body.”
Meanwhile, the Parades Commission has been slammed after Orangemen are apparently going to be allowed to assemble but not march in the centre of the predominantly nationalist village of Dunloy.
The Parades Commission was described as a “laughing stock” after it issued the bizarre amendment to its original determination barring Orangemen from the contentious route. Instead, it has instructed Orangemen not to hold “a procession” on any part of the notified route.
Nationalists have said they believe this clears the way for a sectarian display with loyalist bands at any given point on the parade route.
“This is making the Parades Commission a laughing stock,” said North Antrim Sinn Féin assembly member Philip McGuigan. “This altered determination is little more than capitulation to Ian Paisley.
“We have always said the way to successfully resolve this issue is through dialogue and, instead, Orangemen are rewarded for intransigence.
“What the Parades Commission has done here is say ‘this march isn’t to take place in Dunloy’ but they can form up and play music for up to ten minutes. That’s a joke.
A tense stand-off took place in Dunloy last year between nationalist residents and Orangemen during the town’s annual July 12 Orange parade.
“The resolution of this issue lies in both dialogue and accommodation at local level,” said McGuigan in a statement. “The Orange Order consistently refuses to engage in this process in Dunloy, a position which is replicated across the Six Counties. My hope is that the residents of Dunloy will enjoy a peaceful day this coming Wednesday without their village besieged by bigots in bowler hats.”