Last weekend saw a major setback for the peace process as British forces staged a provocative sectarian parade through Belfast city centre.
The parade, a deliberate attempt to humiliate Belfast republicans, took place without the serious violence that had threatened all week.
However, there was considerable anger when a loyalist mob were allowed to rain missiles down on a peaceful nationalist protest, including families of those bereaved by the parading regiments.
A number of the 2,000 protestors were struck by fireworks and other missiles in front of the PSNI police, despite an almost unprecedented “security” operation by the Crown forces.
Rioting by republican youths and a feared possible armed attack by breakaway militants did not materialise, however, possibly as a result of last-minute efforts by Sinn Féin and the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) to defuse the tense situation.
While the British government and Policing Board welcomed the absence of major conflict, nationalist leaders expressed outrage that the planned parade was allowed to go ahead in the first place.
Ahead of the event, at about 10am on Sunday, tens of thousands of loyalists waving Union flags and singing sectarian slurs had massed behind barriers, just yards from where the planned Sinn Féin protest was due to arrive from Dunville Park in the west of the city.
Senior UVF and UDA paramilitary leaders were present and appeared to be working up to a major confrontation with masked supporters positioned high up on construction scaffolding.
Chants of ‘The Famine’s Over, Go Home’ [sic], ‘Kill All Taigs’ and ‘Dirty Fenian B******s’ echoed from the scaffolding as one loyalist threw two crash barriers across the road in front of police.
At one stage the two sides came within 50 yards of each other and loyalists surged towards the relatively small group of Sinn Féin protestors, who were singing and holding posters of those killed by the British Army.
However, the tension ebbed after 250 British soldiers in full regalia, preceded by a pipe band, marched past at rapid speed.
Although relieved at the absence of serious injuries or deaths, Sinn Féin’s Sean Murray severely criticised the PSNI’s policing of events.
“We had meetings with the PSNI in the run up to Sunday and warned senior police officers of the danger of allowing loyalists on to that scaffolding,” he said.
“Our protest was dignified and peaceful as we said it would be but we were repeatedly hit with bottles, stones, fireworks and scaffolding bolts.
“The actions of the loyalists taking part in that so-called ‘homecoming’ parade was highly provocative and if it hadn’t been for the restraint shown by the families taking part in our protest it could have been a recipe for disaster,” he said.
“If this was supposed to be a celebration, then I think that says a lot about the British army and the people who choose to support them.”
Mark Thompson, spokesman for Relatives for Justice, also criticised the PSNI for allowing loyalists to break through police lines to taunt people taking part in the republican parade.
“We had said from the start that this would be a loyalist coat-trailing exercise and that’s exactly what it was,” he said.
Speaking after the event, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly said his party and the families of victims of state violence had committed themselves to holding a solemn, peaceful and dignified protest rally.
“That’s exactly what was delivered today,” he said,
“We have always made it clear that the singular focus of our protest was the British military parade, and highlighting the plight of those families bereaved as a result of collusion and state violence.
“The British State policy of collusion is an issue that the British Government and their armed apparatus cannot hide from, and the massive demonstration held today highlights this fact.
“What the British Army has done in Ireland is wrong and the same wrong is being inflicted on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan today.
“I want to commend all of those who took part in our rally and who acted in such an appropriate and dignified way, despite enormous provocation. The conduct of our families and protestors stands in marked contrast to the sectarian and violent reaction of those who claimed to be on the streets today to welcome home the British Army.
“The onus is now on those public figures who called people out onto the streets in opposition to our protest to account for the unbridled sectarian behaviour witnessed in Belfast today.”
Meanwhile, some 400 republicans were prevented from staging a second protest march from west Belfast after it was declared illegal by the PSNI.
A smaller group from the Irish Republican Socialist Party and other republican organisations also gathered peacefully in solidarity with residents of the markets area of east Belfast.
eirigi activists and supporters marched to the PSNI barricades in west Belfast and set up a protective line, whilst banners bearing messages such as “Oppose Britain’s Murder Machine”, were erected.
The rally was addressed by Alex McCrory, a former H-Block republican political prisoner and blanketman, who read a statement from victims of British state violence.
Brenda Downes, whose husband was shot dead by the RUC in 1984 at a similar rally, and whose killer was acquitted of the charge of manslaughter in a British court, addressed the rally and condemned the British state forces as murderers.
Defiantly addressing the Crown forces, Brian Leeson, eirigi chairperson, told the PSNI present to “tell your masters” that among the protestors “you saw many ex-prisoners, you saw blanketmen, you saw the victims of your violence” and “tell them that beside these men from the H-Blocks, who brought the war to the British state for 30 years, stood a new generation that was as determined as any generation that came before them.
“Tell them that you looked into the eyes of a risen people, and that they were not afraid.”