Thousands of Unionists marched peacefully through the heart of Northern Ireland’s capital on Saturday amid fears of sectarian violence. Some 30,000 police were deployed to prevent street clashes between marchers and Republicans.
A major parade that Northern Irish politicians and security forces feared could spark fighting between Republicans and Unionists passed peacefully on Saturday after police mounted their biggest security operation in 20 years.
Some 30,000 Unionists marked the centenary of one of the most historic events in a province scarred by decades of sectarian violence, the signing of a pact by half a million of their ancestors opposing the introduction of devolved government in Ireland.
Members of the various Unionist “loyal orders,” so-called because they’re loyal to Great Britain, trooped down Belfast’s streets festooned with buttons, tassels and other ceremonial gear. The marchers, including members of the Orange Order, banged drums and played music as they walked the six-mile (nine-kilometre) route from the capital’s City Hall to Stormont, the seat of Northern Ireland’s parliament, twice passing a Catholic church where violence had recently flared up.
Parade-goers carried the orange collarette, a small V-shaped sash worn around the neck. Many also came in the stern-looking dark sunglasses, black bowler caps and white gloves that have become synonymous with the marches.
At least two women chose a more relaxed uniform: Red-white-and-blue wigs and Union Jack dresses.
More than 1,000 members of the British security forces were among 3,600 people killed during 30 years of the “Troubles”.
The violence between mainly Catholic nationalists and pro-British Protestants was largely ended by a 1998 peace deal, but sporadic violence has grown in recent years and a far smaller march earlier this month incited three nights of rioting.
Most parades across Northern Ireland pass peacefully each year but violence often breaks out when marchers cross or pass close to rival communities, particularly during the divisive summer marching season which is nearing its conclusion.
The loyal orders see the marches, which date back to the 19th century, as expressions of their culture and a testament to their faith. But many Republicans see them as aggressive and anti-Irish, and the marches can devolve into street fights, particularly when they pass through heavily Catholic areas.
The Parades Commission, the body that decides whether or not marches can take place, ordered bands accompanying the loyalist marches to play only hymns as they walked by the church.
It also restricted to 150 the number of Republican protestors, who waved black flags and held banners urging respect for their church.
Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which now shares power in the local assembly with its former Unionist foes, said it was unhappy with the behaviour of a number of bands.
Marchers also gathered at Belfast’s City Hall, where the Ulster Covenant was signed, and marched 10 kilometres (six miles) to Stormont, the home of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government where religious services, music and dancing were held.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)
Date created : 2012-09-29