Sunday mornings are fairly quiet affairs in Belfast at the best of times but yesterday it was even more so.
From early on in the day a ring of steel was formed around Royal Avenue as the PSNI moved in to enforce a Parades Commission determination relating to the route of a parade by the (dissident) Republican Anti-Internment League and a counter-protest by Loyalists in Royal Avenue.
Scores of tourists stood around watching, many seemingly bemused as to what could be heading in that direction to justify the complete lockdown of the City Centre, leaving many shops inaccessible behind the rows of landrovers and riot gear-clad police.
The protest parade, against ‘internment by remand’ was due to leave the Ardoyne at 2.30pm, despite the Parades Commission determining that it had to have cleared the City Centre by 1.30pm. The organisers had refused to engage with the PSNI and were determined to flout the ruling, creating a situation that would bring them into inevitable conflict with the forces of law and order.
Among Loyalists emotions were running high. At the bottom of the Shankill there were about 200 people gathered. Speaking to them they had a range of reasons for being there but the main motivation appeared to be ensuring that the police upheld the Parades Commission determination, therefore ensuring that policing was not political and was employed impartially in relation to parades. Quite how they were going to ensure that that was the case I’m not sure.
Over in North Street a steel barrier had been thrown across the road. A few PSNI officers sat atop a wall, looking hot and bothered. Stopping for a chat we asked what was going to happen now that the parade had not passed the City Centre by 1.30pm and was therefore illegal. An officer underlined that they were going to enforce the resolution. I wished her luck.
Back among the Loyalist crowd the mood was still good natured. It was obvious though that there was little faith in the police. Twitter was anxiously scanned for news of the Republican parade leaving the Ardoyne while rumours circulated that the parade had yet to even assemble. Then a tweet from @Belfastlive was spotted, showing the crowd in Royal Avenue cheering as it was announced that the Republican marchers wouldn’t even be getting into town. There was palpable relief all round and within minutes those who had made it into Royal Avenue began emerging from behind the North Street cordon.
With the PSNI stopping the parade at Oldpark, people began to drift away and soon a whole convoy of cars was heading up the Shankill towards that area. At the junction of Hillview Road two watercannon were seen – it was clear that the PSNI operation that had taken over the town was being redeployed to stop the parade getting out of North Belfast.
In the Lower Oldpark the mood was altogether more tense but most people were only there to satisfy their curiosity; “I’m just out for a pint of milk”, one woman told me, in a satirical nod to the excuse anyone who was ever hit with a plastic bullet trotted out.
Soon a band could be heard approaching in the distance. Then, after a nervous few moments, Twitter confirmed that they had simply turned around and walked back in the direction they came from.
With the sound of very-poorly played bass drum fading off into the distance the crowd began to disperse, suddenly there was a surge of people running down the road. We went along to see what was going on. Two guys had landed themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. While some young guys engaged in a spot of pavement dancing, an older lady emerged from a house yelling to leave them alone as they sprinted towards the police lines. The ‘T-word’ was bandied around in an increasingly casual fashion. Just at that moment a couple of fireworks went off. The atmosphere had turned quite nasty and we decided to leave.
Strolling back into town I pondered the solution to all of this. At the moment the Parades Commission and PSNI strategy appears to be one of damage limitation – accepting that we live in an imperfect world and attempting to contain the fallout. The natural consequence of this is that people look for any sign of partiality and feel aggrieved when they find it. As a result entire communities place their collective emotion in the hands of barely accountable public bodies, attempting to engage with the state outside of democratic structures.
I fear that we’re losing another generation to this stuff. While the tribalism that defined our society in the past is generally decreasing, there’s no doubt that, in certain areas of Belfast anyway, very little has ever changed in people’s heads. While the majority of protesters were over 40, there was a fair smattering of younger people on the Loyalist side to rival the Republican petrol bomb throwers who emerged an hour or so later and the young crowd who chanted ‘Oo ah up the Ra’ at two Wolfe Tones gigs over the weekend.
It doesn’t have to be this way. On Saturday the annual Apprentice Boys parade, through the centre of arguably the most Nationalist city in Northern Ireland went off without a hitch. Twenty years of hard work, which sees the loyal order engage with the community, has gone into ensuring that there’s no trouble. On the other hand, the organisers of this parade refused to talk to anyone at all.
The contrast tells a tale. To move on we’ve got to do what we’re uncomfortable with and accept a little offence. In the case of Unionism that’s all about being a step-ahead. If only any of the current crop of so-called leaders had a clue where we are trying to get to. Sadly, they’re stuck going around in circles.