Tensions are escalating in north Belfast as loyalists prepare for the biggest sectarian displays of the marching season.
Clashes have been reported near a giant loyalist bonfire constructed at a sectarian interface near Duncairn Gardens, amid a huge presence of PSNI vehicles. It is one of a number to lit on Saturday night as part of the annual sectarian ‘Eleventh Night’ celebrations to mark the eve of a 17th century Protestant battle victory over Catholics.
A ‘peace line’ gate along the street separates the predominantly unionist Tigers Bay area from the nationalist New Lodge. Petrol bombs, bricks and bottles have been thrown tonight after nationalist youths were chased from the area by a loyalist gang wielding baseball bats who accused them of planning to set the bonfire alight prematurely.
There have also been clashes between the PSNI and nationalists, with one armoured vehicle being struck tonight by fireworks and petrol bombs, not far from a road blocked by a burning barricade.
Nationalists were being targeted earlier in the week in adjacent streets, including cars being vandalised. One man described how he had been targeted by loyalists:
“Just as I passed Lepper Street and Adam Street a hail of bricks and bottles came at me from the loyalists building the bonfire in Tigers Bay,” he said. “I am not a youth, I am a man of 50, yet they still targeted me.
“I also watched as they threw full-size bricks at three or four small children who were walking through the gate into the New Lodge side. These kids were aged about eight to 10, and it was a miracle that none of them were hit.”
The clashes also follow weeks of sectarian attacks on Catholic children. In May, 15-year-old Flynn Maguire escaped with a serious head wound after he was attacked and robbed by loyalists while he was out cycling in the area. At the end of June, Noah Donohoe, a 14-year-old boy disappeared while out cycling in north Belfast. His body was found days later in a storm drain in a loyalist area.
Loyalists are said to have been angered that a flute band has been barred from parading through nationalist of north Belfast over the Twelfth. ‘Ballysillan Volunteers’ had planned a ‘Twelfth’ march on July 13 through 77 streets lasting five-and-a-half hours. A ruling by the Parades Commission, which adjudicates on sectarian parades, banned it from several streets along the planned route.
Ballysillan Volunteers has since submitted a revised plan which more than halves the number of streets to 32. The revised route is in line with the Parades Commission’s restrictions.
More than 260 loyalist bands have made notifications to hold sectarian parades between July 11 and 13 in defiance of restrictions and cross-community appeals not to hold marches this year.