As concerns mount over the forthcoming marching season, several thousand unionists and scores of bands brought Newry to a standstill on Friday of last weekend in what was described as “an orgy of sectarian triumphalism”.
The Protestant marching season is ramping up and while most attention is on the ongoing dispute in north Belfast, sectarian tensions have also risen elsewhere.
Last weekend, residents of the predominately nationalist border town of Newry found themselves hemmed into their own streets, surrounded by a ring of steel, with a helicopter constantly hovering over the area. The PSNI’s anti-riot Tactical Support Group were also deployed in adjoining side streets to ensure the parade passed through unhindered.
An estimated 100 loyalist bands from across the Six Counties and 4,000 of their supporters took part in the event.
Many people found themselves unable to leave their homes either through fear or because of the massive British security operation that was in place. Motorists attempting to enter the town found the town sealed off for several hours.
Commenting on the invasion of his town by loyalists, eirigi’s Newry representative Stephen Murney said the parade was a sectarian coat-trailing exercise.
“I was present along with a few other local people to observe this sectarian march. Immediately we found ourselves under close surveillance by the PSNI. A large part of Newry resembled a ghost town as roads were blocked and local people were prevented from going about their normal activities,” he said.
“It’s time these sectarian parades came to an end. They are unwanted and unwelcome. In Newry there is a deep sense of anger and frustration from local people who have to suffer year in and year out due to these sectarian marches”.
Mr Murney said it was only the start of the marching season, and last weekend’s scenario would be repeated again and again in Newry over the coming summer months.
“There is no logic in bussing in thousands of loyalists from across the six counties to march in an area with which they have absolutely no affinity. The only thing it does is to create tension.”
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein has expressed fears that the parading issue could become caught up in a post-election bargaining between the DUP and the Tories.
Reports have indicated that the unionist party has promised the anti-Catholic Orange Order that it will seek the legislation protecting the right to parade and limiting the right of residents to intervene. It will also attempt to achieve new legislation granting protection in law for the official display of the Union Jack flag as part of their shopping list for government.
Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd has warned the DUP was “clearly shaping up” to a post-election deal accepting Tory cuts to public services and welfare in exchange for an Orange Order march through Ardoyne in north Belfast.
“The DUP are obviously more concerned about appeasing the Orange Order than protecting communities from cuts,” he said.
“The DUP demand also raises questions for the British Tory party. Theresa Villiers needs to clarify is her party prepared to do a grubby deal with the DUP and give in to what can only be described as a nakedly sectarian demand.”
There are concerns among nationalist residents in Ardoyne that the PSNI intends to attempt to force the Orange parade through the area this summer. Those fears jumped this week when the chairperson of a local nationalist residents group, GARC’s Dee Fennell, was arrested and held without bail over comments made in an Easter speech. It also emerged this week that paramedics in Belfast are to receive riot gear in anticipation of major disorder over the parade.
There have been sectarian confrontations recently at the north Belfast interface, while a house in Walmer Street off the Ormeau Road in south Belfast came under attack by loyalists this week.
In a terrifying incident, a brick was thrown through the front window of a house, damaging a television in the front room. Anti-Catholic abuse was also shouted at the occupant, a woman in her late 30s.