Loyalist bands defied public appeals to call off marches because of the coronavirus on Monday and insisted on holding hundreds of triumphalist parades to mark a sectarian battle victory.
The Protestant Orange Order had formally cancelled its plans to mark the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, but associated bands went ahead with parades through Belfast and other towns, with little attention to social distancing regulations.
Almost 250 bands held marches, including one in north Belfast which defied a Parades Commission ruling prohibiting it from passing nationalist areas.
While the main parades and demonstrations were cancelled, some official Orange Order memorial events did proceed, but on a smaller scale, and with fewer sectarian flags and bunting than usual.
The openly anti-Catholic Orange Order described it as “a Twelfth like no other in recent memory”.
In north Belfast, sectarian clashes continued for three nights at the interface between the nationalist New Lodge and the loyalist Tigers Bay area.
A large bonfire had been built along the ‘peace line’ between the two areas, and was the focus of intense clashes last weekend as New Lodge residents retaliated to the loyalist provocation. Properties in the New Lodge had to be hosed down by the fire service as the bonfire burned on Saturday night.
One resident said a van was seen delivering pallets to the bonfire site this week, during which a council-controlled gate for access had been opened.
“I know the small pedestrian gate has to be opened for people to access the chemist, but the opening of the other gate is just ridiculous,” he said.
Tensions had been raised by ham-fisted efforts to remove a nationalist anti-internment bonfire from the New Lodge last August, which resulted in serious clashes with the PSNI.
Sinn Féin said there had been “an orchestrated attempt” by loyalists to exacerbate tensions by building the bonfire at Adam Street. The site is situated on land owned by the Department for Communities. Communities Minister, Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín, said she had launched a judicial review of the PSNI decision not to have the bonfire removed.
Her party colleague, Councillor JJ Magee, said his party had appealed to the PSNI to remove the bonfire “for the past two months”, and had also asked unionist politicians to intervene, “but our pleas fell on deaf ears”.
The councillor said only a handful of youths from the nationalist New Lodge were involved in the rioting, but was pelted with eggs when he urged the youths to disperse. Two youths were reported to have been injured in clashes on Sunday night.
“It’s my hope that efforts can be made now to rebuild good relations between the New Lodge and Tigers Bay which have been disrupted by a small minority who want to stoke tensions,” Mr Magee said.
Elsewhere, Sinn Féin elected representatives said they continue to report to the PSNI incidents of sectarian banners and placards, erected by loyalists, as hate crimes. A number of them refer to republican leader Bobby Storey who died last month.
West Belfast MP Paul Maskey called on unionist politicians to speak out against what he said was “a series of blatant and unacceptable displays of sectarian hatred”.