Heavy stewarding by Sinn Féin and the IRA allowed an Orange Order march on the nationalist Springfield Road in west Belfast to pass off peacefully yesterday (Saturday), signalling that other controversial loyalist parades through nationalist areas might also be trouble-free this summer.
The Workman Avenue 'peace' gate, which is normally closed, was opened to allow 50 Orangemen onto the Springfield Road. They entered the nationalist area to loud cheers, applause, and the waving of Union Jacks from their supporters, who were kept behind the barricades.
Two dozen police Land Rovers and around 100 officers were present on the Springfield Road. Two cordons of stewards, including prominent Sinn Féin and IRA members, kept hundreds of nationalist youth and residents away from the marchers.
No stones or petrol bombs were thrown. Some nationalist youths who had climbed onto the roofs of houses, waved tricolours and gave the Orangemen the fingers. One shouted: "Come on you f***ers."Several Orange marchers took photographs of the nationalist protesters and recorded them on camcorders.
Leading republican and ex-IRA prisoner, Sean 'Spike' Murray was involved in ongoing discussions with senior PSNI officers in the lead-up to the parade.Nationalist protesters carried placards saying "You are now passing nationalist homes", "Loyalist violence works", and "No UVF flags".
Three representatives of the Irish government two from the Belfast Secretariat and one from the Department of Justice monitored the situation. Dissident republicans and members of the INLA were present at the protest but caused no trouble.
The Parades Commission, which rules on disputed marches in the North, had allowed 50 Orangemen to pass through the Workman Avenue gate but had re-routed the other 16 bands and marchers through the former Mackies factory site.
Restrictions were placed on the flags and banners the marchers were allowed to display and the songs played.Last year, there was an orgy of loyalist violence when the Orange parade was re-routed away from the Springfield Road.
The cost of policing the march and the subsequent rioting was over £3m. Illegal roadblocks were set up all over Belfast, police were attacked with petrol and blast bombs, and live rounds were fired by loyalist gunmen.
The Parades Commission's recent decision was seen by many nationalist politicians as rewarding loyalist violence.SDLP Assembly member Alban Maginnis said he was pleased that the parade had passed off peacefully but the wrong decision had been made. "There has been pandering to the worst excesses of loyalist violence. The policing operation today was not overly heavy and I have no complaints but the whole issue of marching needs to be sorted."
A Sinn Féin spokesman said: "There is deep anger in this community that the Parades Commission is seen to be rewarding loyalist violence.The integrity of Roger Poole [chairman of the Parades Commission] has been seriously called into question." Sources said that Poole had been told by republicans to stay away from the Springfield Road yesterday.
DUP Assembly member Diane Dodds was pleased that the march passed off peacefully. "Both protesters and marchers have behaved in a respectful and dignified way.This holds out some hope for both communities this summer. There would have been a huge outcry if some Orangemen had not been allowed through the Workman Avenue Gate.
"I hope this positive process continues. If we want a shared future for everybody in Northern Ireland, we have to share our roads. It must be remembered that the Springfield Road is a main arterial route and not a small nationalist side street."
SDLP representative Tim Atwood said that the Parades Commission decision had set a dangerous precedent and he was worried that if loyalists engaged in only a veneer of dialogue with nationalist residents, similar Orange parades would be allowed through nationalist areas.
The Northern secretary, Peter Hain, had appealed for calm before the march. "It's important that we have a new era in parades in which people can exercise their traditional and cultural rights but do so in a way that does not seek to intimidate or infringe on the rights and interests of the other communities."