One of the biggest unionist parades in decades passed off without disorder in Belfast today.
A winding six-mile march from central Belfast to Stormont marked the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant, a landmark declaration for unionists opposed to Irish self-governance.
One of the biggest policing operation in 20 years took place in the city, sealing off many nationalist areas from the city centre.
A number of loyalist bands involved in the parade breached the light restrictions placed by the Parades Commission against playing sectarian tunes near St Patrick’s Catholic church in north Belfast.
Many bands provocatively increased the volume of their music and drummed at a deafening volume as they passed the churches while ostensibly playing ‘hymns’. One drummer inflamed tensions by provocatively prancing about while playing at the church.
However, a protest by nationalist Carrick Hill residents in north Belfast did not respond. The group’s spokesperson said he was glad there had been no violence, but pointed out that supposedly legally-binding determination of the Parades Commission had been ignored.
“With one band in particular, the bass drummer danced outside St Patrick’s and nobody can work out what type of hymn that was,” said Frank Dempsey of the Carrick Hill Residents Association. “The minute they passed the church, a number of bands reverted to playing ‘the Sash’ and clearly broke the restriction.”
He said he was “proud of the dignified protest” by parishioners, and again urged the loyal orders to engage in talks, adding that “dialogue is the way forward”.
Nationalists in other areas were largely cordoned off from the parade route. In east Belfast, marchers deliberately struck up sectarian tunes outside St Matthew’s Catholic church, again in defiance of the Parades Commission.
Up to 30,000 people from eight Protestant marching took part in the events, which ended in a giant loyalist rally at Stormont. In the grounds of Stormont, loyalist paramilitary (UVF and UDA) merchandise were controversially among the items on sale.
Among those involved in events were British right-wing extremist Nick Griffin, of the British National Party (BNP).
While nationalists condemned the triumphalist and intimidatory nature of the parade, the North’s PSNI police chief Matt Baggott insisted it had taken place in “an overwhelming mood of dignity and respect and enjoyment and mutual co-operation”.
Although the PSNI failed to investigate more serious breaches of the Parades Commission determinations earlier this summer, he again claimed violations of the law would be “looked at”.