The Orange Order has given its overwhelming backing to parading proposals drawn up as part of the Hillsborough Agreement.
The vast majority of members attending a Grand Lodge meeting on Saturday voted to accept a proposed framework to resolve the issue of sectarian parades put forward by a joint Sinn Fein/DUP working group.
Grandmaster Robert Saulters said that 95 per cent had backed the parading aspect of the Hillsborough deal so far following a meeting of 120 members near Dungannon, County Tyrone.
It is understood that the Orange Order met senior DUP figures, including Jeffrey Donaldson, Stephen Moutray and Nelson McCausland, on Thursday.
The plan remain secret, but is likely to see Orangemen granted permission to hold a number of contentious sectarian parades across the North, including the highly contentious Garvaghy Road in Portadown.
Members of the order’s central committee, who met last Monday, recommended that members support the proposals, which passed without amendment.
Meanwhile, there are concerns that a prominent loyalist facing child rape charges, Mark Harbinson, is orchestrating an intimidatory sectarian parade from his prison cell.
The loyalist march is due to take place in Stoneyford, County Antrim on St Patrick’s night.
In recent years up to a dozen Catholic families have been forced to leave their homes in the village because of loyalist intimidation.
A series of loyalist parades organised by the ‘Pride of the Village’ fluteband has reinforced a message of loyalist domination in the town.
In October last year Harbinson was charged with raping a 13-year-old girl, who he allegedly groomed in his role as a senior member of the flute band.
Harbinson, who denies the charges, has subsequently been questioned about separate alleged sex attacks.
The Parades Commission, which is facing abolition this year, is thought to have permitted the parade despite opposing all elements of the parade application after coming political pressure.
Questioning why the loyalist bond wants to parade through the mixed village on a night traditionally associated with celebrations by nationalists, the commission said: “The Pride of the Village flute band has on no occasion in the past demonstrated such affiliations and has no history of parading on this date.
“The question, therefore, remains unanswered as to whether or not this is a mischievous notification to parade in Stoneyford from an unrelated third party; or, indeed, whether it is a genuine notification from the Pride of the Village band.”
It said the parade could “only give rise to renewed tensions in Stoneyford”.
And in a highly unusual move, the commission referred directly to the unnamed organiser of the march.
“The commission suggests to the organiser that he reflect carefully on whether his actions are in the best interests of community relations in Stoneyford; and if they are helping to further the interests of parading as a peaceful, cultural tradition.”
The commission would not comment on whether it believes Harbinson organised the band parade from his prison cell.
The parade was banned from entering three mixed housing estates, with the actual parade limited to just 15 minutes. However, there was still anger over the parade getting the green light despite the commission’s apparent opposition.
Sinn Fein assembly member Paul Butler called for an urgent meeting with PSNI Chief Matt Baggott.
“We are demanding this parade is banned because, as can be seen by the Parades Commission determination, it has been organised for no other reason than to increase sectarian tensions,” he said.
“This parade is being allowed to go ahead despite there being no named organiser and names of parade marshals being bogus.
“There is a real concern among nationalists that this parade has been organised by Mr Harbinson from his prison cell for his own reasons.”