Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Yes, a trouble-free day... but now there must be dialogue

Orangemen during a stand-off with police on Woodvale Road, Belfast, close to the Ardoyne, after their protest march was re-routed by the Parades Commission
Orangemen during a stand-off with police on Woodvale Road, Belfast, close to the Ardoyne, after their protest march was re-routed by the Parades Commission

This time the mood was completely different. Not a hint of a brick or a bottle or water cannon or plastic bullets.

Indeed, long before the parade arrived a senior PSNI officer at Woodvale spoke of grounds for optimism.

At this time the road was still open, buses travelling up, including the 11A to Silverstream, and cars down towards the Shankill.

The intention was to keep a sense of normality and routine for as long as possible.

At the last minute a row of Land Rovers manoeuvred into place to block the road where the Parades Commission ruled this march should stop.

On Saturday, the stage was well managed.

There were marshals in place at what was a battle line on the Twelfth, and the first row of officers was in shirt sleeves.

Of course, there was a huge police presence – many of them in full riot kit – but they weren't needed.

Saturday was not one of those in-your-face type days.

In the high temperatures there were cool heads.

This was a day of band music, speeches and a poem.

No smashing glass, no bricks bouncing off helmets and shields, none of the combative-type policing that involves dogs, and batons with water cannon on the front line, and those worrying moments when plastic bullets are produced and fired.

Yes, there were angry, defiant words spoken from the top of a van serving as a stage; words that demanded an end to the Parades Commission, that spoke of a determination on the part of the Ligoniel lodges "to get home", and that urged thousands to fill this protest stage on the Woodvale Road.

"It starts today," was the message in one of the speeches.

PUP leader Billy Hutchinson was on a break over the Twelfth, but back on the ground on Saturday.

"It'll be okay," he told me minutes before the march arrived at the police lines, describing the atmosphere as "relaxed".

That word may seem out of place on another day of big numbers and high-cost security.

But if there is such a thing as being able to relax in such circumstances, this was that type of stage.

There were no surprises.

The police seemed to know what to expect, and so did the marchers and those who accompanied them.

There was none of the madness and mayhem of the Twelfth.

Of course, these things don't just happen – there was obviously a lot of talking beforehand and on the ground.

On Saturday evening Rev Mervyn Gibson tweeted: "Today only worked because it was peaceful. We will only win by keeping it peaceful. Well done to all who attended and marshalled".

I replied to him: "Better mood today and well managed, but nothing has changed in terms [of] where the parade is. Nothing will be won by numbers on street".

My wider point was that answers and agreements won't be found within one community.

So, the next bit is how to move beyond Saturday and the defiant words. It doesn't matter how many people come to that road to protest or how many times. The police lines will not be breached.

Yes, there was a softer frontline image on Saturday, but just a few steps back there was everything and everyone that would be needed if there had been a different mood.

The loyalist suggestion that republicans are waging a cultural war has not prompted a widespread reaction.

This stand-off is in one part of Belfast, and here and everywhere else, people have other worries – food, bills, jobs, education.

So this street play needs to be taken backstage into a dialogue of the type suggested by the Parades Commission.

The Haass initiative also offers a chance to talk and, when tempers cool, there is something that needs to be understood.

On the Woodvale Road the police lines are not going to be broken, and if there is to be a way through then that route and the rules of the journey will have to be shaped by thinking and talking – not inside one community, but across the communities.

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