A south Belfast community worker has voiced residents’ fears that last week’s Hillsborough Agreement could lead to a return of the violent anti-Catholic parades that marred the area in the 1990s.
Gerard Rice was speaking after the agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP to devolve policing and justice powers to Stormont was announced two weeks ago.
Part of the deal will see a new framework to handle the marching season, beginning in 2011. An assembly working group will announce in two weeks agreed outcomes on disputed parades, including the Lower Ormeau in south Belfast.
Mr Rice said an Orange Order statement welcoming the agreement as a “positive step forward” had worried locals, given the Order’s history in the area, adding they were fearful of a return to parades that have been banned for the past decade.
“We have not had to endure these parades for 10 years but there is a great fear an ending to the Parades Commission could also see an ending to the ban on the Orange Order marching past the Lower Ormeau.
“The likes of Ardoyne is an unresolved flashpoint. The Orange Order would like to continue marching there and if they do, there is a chance they would then return to the likes of here to try as well.”
The parades issue in the Lower Ormeau came to a head in July 1992, when members of the Orange Order gave a five-fingered salute outside the Sean Graham bookmakers, a reference to the number of locals murdered in a UFF attack there the previous February.
“There are people in this area who for very good reasons do not want to see the Orange Order parading past their homes. That incident showed a total lack of respect for the victims and their families, but that was just what brought it to a head.
“There were many more times where gestures were given or slogans were shouted and the community decided they were not going to put up with it anymore.
“We told the Orange Order why this community opposed them, but their line was always the same - the routes they took were not for negotiation, and it was only when the Parades Commission made its ruling that they changed their course.”
Sinn Fein Assembly member Alex Maskey, whose party colleagues Gerry Kelly, Michelle Gildernew and John O’Dowd will sit on the working group, said the “last thing” the Lower Ormeau needed was for parades to be back on the agenda.
“Given the history, I understand why the community has these fears, but I can assure the people of the Lower Ormeau nothing we will be involved in as a party would jeopardise their rights, and I say that as a person who took part in the defence of the Ormeau Road against these parades.”
Meanwhile, the DUP leader Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness promised a new spirit of partnership today, despite their previous uneven relationship.
Both men said they had been divided on issues in the past but were now focused on delivering on the promises of the Hillsborough deal that includes new accommodations on local policing and justice as well as on parades.
However, Margaret Ritchie, the new leader of the nationalist SDLP, dubbed the Hillsborough Castle deal as a “non-agreement” and warned her party may take legal action if it is denied the new Justice Ministry.
Ms Ritchie also did not rule out a SDLP withdrawal from the Executive.
And she was scathing of a new official advertising campaign on the Hillsborough Agreement, describing it as “phony”.
Mr McGuinness said: “There is overwhelming support, I believe, despite the protestations of the SDLP. People want to see us press on.”
He added: “Peter and I are prepared to work together. We have had difficulties in the past. As far as I am concerned they are in the past.”