A coat-trailing and incendiary march by British troops is set to take place in the centre of Ireland’s second city on Sunday despite widespread fears over the potential for serious violence.
Members of the Royal Irish Regiment (formerly the notorious UDR militia) will be joined by members of two other British Army regiments in the hugely contentious military display through Belfast.
Sinn Féin, eirigi and the Republican Network for Unity are all set to mount separate peaceful protests. The day is expected to see one of the largest British policing operations ever mounted in the North amid concern that riots or worse could erupt.
The parade is ostensibly being staged to mark the ‘homecoming’ of locally-recruited British troops from their recent deployment in Afghanistan, although hundreds continue to be stationed there.
While hardline unionists have pushed for the march to go ahead, nationalists have been appalled by the idea in view of the British Army’s bloody history of occupation and oppression in Ireland.
British troops were responsible for killing scores of innocent civilians in Belfast and across the North during the conflict and the parade is being seen as a public insult to the nationalist community.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown claimed this week his country’s troops deserved “community support” in Belfast. Sinn Féin has said his comments ignored the political realities of the issue and that Belfast was not “as British as Finchley”, as was once claimed by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Party President Gerry Adams blamed British Direct Ruler Shaun Woodward for his handling of the issue.
“While the British Ministry of Defence may be oblivious to the sensitivities involved, surely Shaun Woodward should have realised that Sunday’s event is ill-advised,” he said.
Mr Adams said a civic reception and a religious service would have provided families and supporters of the British Army with the opportunity to welcome back their loved ones from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“But the decision by the British Ministry of Defence to organise a military parade through Belfast city centre is totally unacceptable, not least because of the role of British forces in Ireland and in the city of Belfast.
“Republican and nationalist Belfast has suffered dreadfully under British military rule in the recent conflict.”
He said working class unionists had also felt the brunt of British military actions and said loyalist gunmen had in the past opened fire on British troops.
“So there are lots of contradictions in the unionist and loyalist position,” said Mr Adams.
“There are also people, including many who are not Sinn Féin supporters, who feel that a march to celebrate the actions of the British Army and the British government in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is wrong.”
New republican group Eirigi will attempt to parade from Divis Tower on the Falls Road into the city centre on Sunday morning, while another protest will be organised in the republican Markets area of east Belfast by the Republican Network for Unity, the Irish Republican Socialist Party and the 32 County Sovereignty Movement.
The Workers Solidarity Movement also confirmed yesterday that it intends to hold a protest on Royal Avenue in the city centre.
Parades Commission Chairman Roger Poole said the latter demonstrations were “illegal” and would be “dealt with by the PSNI”.
Eirigi spokesman Brian Leeson rejected unionist claims that his organisation was planning to attack Sunday’s parade.
“Our only intention is to actively oppose this parade,” he said. “It will be a peaceful dignified and disciplined protest.”
However, Mr Leeson said organisers would not negotiate with the police and said the British Army would have to bear responsibility if the parade descended into violence.
The Republican Network for Unity said it intended to “mobilise and stand by the people of the Markets district” during the parade.
“Over the years the Markets area has regularly endured siege-like conditions as similar parades, complete with loyalist onlookers, were accommodated by the RUC and British army,” a spokesperson said.
Clara Reilly, of the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets, a group representing relatives of those killed and injured by the weapon, said the event should be held in private. “It should be a dignified civic reception or church service. Holding a march through the city centre is insensitive, divisive and indeed sectarian,” she added.
But the Parades Commission also came under fire from the DUP after it was confirmed that a Sinn Féin protest against the demonstration would go ahead in Donegall Place.
North Belfast Assembly member Nelson McCausland accused it of “pandering to bigotry” and called the decision an insult to those who had served in the British Army.
“The Parades Commission has simply caved into the demands of Sinn Féin and their decision is a recipe for disaster,” he said, while party leader Peter Robinson said the Sinn Féin protest would “intimidate and provoke”.
The headquarters of the commission had to be evacuated following a bomb threat yesterday. No organisation calimed responsiblity for the incident.
Mr Adams said Sinn Féin had gone to great lengths to ensure its protest would be well-marshalled and peaceful.
“The remarks by some unionist representatives have been over the top,” he said. “They too have a responsibility to use their best influence to ensure that Sunday’s events pass peacefully.”