There are no plans by the UVF or UDA to cause trouble during today’s Ulster Covenant parades, loyalist sources have insisted.
The reassurance was voiced as fresh appeals were made for parade supporters to stay away from a north Belfast interface.
The Orange Order has backed calls from unionist leaders including First Minister Peter Robinson for band supporters to take an alternative route into the city centre avoiding a contentious section around St Patrick’s Catholic Church.
County grand chaplain Reverend Mervyn Gibson said: “I would support the call from the First Minister and Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionists, for people to stay away from the Donegall Street area. Go to the City Hall, the Newtownards Road, Upper Newtownards Road or Stormont and enjoy the day.”
Mr Gibson said there were bands marching towards the City Hall from the Shankill area.
“They can go across Denmark Street to the Shankill,” he added.
More than 2,000 Orangemen and 14 bands are expected to march from Clifton Street Orange hall onto Donegall Street and past St Patrick’s before joining the main parade at Belfast City Hall. The return leg at about 5.30pm will follow the same route today.
On Wednesday the Parades Commission issued its determination banning supporters from accompanying the parade between the junction of the Westlink and Clifton Street and the junction of Donegall Street and Royal Avenue, and said only hymns could be played when passing the church.
The ruling also limited a counter-demonstration by residents in Carrick Hill to 150 people.
Two women representing Carrick Hill residents are to take a High Court action this morning in an attempt to get a review of the determination.
The hearing will go ahead after they were granted legal aid to bring the challenge.
It is thought the PSNI will have a significant presence on the ground to ensure that no supporters can access the area around St Patrick’s.
On August 25 violence flared at Donegall Street during a Royal Black Preceptory parade. But fears of similar scenes tomorrow are thought to be dissipating.
One senior unionist said there had been a significant mood swing within the loyalist community.
“There are no fears from the loyalist community,” he told the Belfast Telegraph. “There are no plans by the UVF or the UDA to cause trouble. They will all be taking part in the parade and they would hope it goes swimmingly.
“That’s not to say you won’t get a handful of headers who decide to go to Clifton Street. But, that’s what they will be — a handful of balloons. The vast majority of people will be going to the City Hall or Stormont to watch and enjoy the parade.
“As far as the Pottinger area goes — no one is hyping that up either. The mood is swinging in our community. Nobody wants the focus to be on anything other than the parade and enjoying the day.”
Up to 30,000 people from eight loyal orders, including the Grand Orange Lodge, the Royal Black Preceptory and the Independent Loyal Orange Institution, are to take part in the six-mile procession from Belfast City Hall to Stormont marking 100 years since the signing of the Ulster Covenant.
There is still apprehension among nationalist residents over how events could turn out.
Frank Dempsey, from the Carrick Hill Concerned Residents Committee, called for people from outside the area not to join the protest.
“I hope it will go over peacefully. This community does not want any trouble. But, people in the area are tense at this time and they are concerned about what’s going to happen,” he said.
“This protest won’t be hijacked by dissidents. It has never been hijacked before and nothing is going to change.”
The Orange Order has changed its policy on engagement with residents' groups to discuss contentious parades.
The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland has confirmed that it decided formally in March that “flexibility be allowed over engagement at a local level”.
This means lodges can decide whether to talk to residents' groups in their area to seek agreement over parades. Previously, the Order's policy was not to engage directly with “Sinn Fein-backed residents groups”.
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said: “I think everyone is nervous about how it will go on Saturday, but I also think that huge efforts have gone in to dialogue, to conversations. Huge efforts are going in to trying to ensure it is an occasion which can be commemorated in a respectful and tolerant way.”
It’s more about hats than conflict
By Brian Rowan
There wasn’t the slightest hint of concern as one loyalist leader spoke of today’s Covenant march; no suggestion of conflict or confrontation.
He wanted to talk about the duncher he would be wearing; not just him but many others, as they walk in 2012 but think and dress back in time.
For a moment I wasn’t sure if he was being serious, but he was.
He had details of the website that offered the soft caps at a reasonable price, and then the conversation moved to bowler hats, false moustaches and truncheons.
These are some of the bits and pieces that will be worn tomorrow in a walk back in time to the historic events of 100 years ago. It wasn’t that long ago that this loyalist would have been on parade with men displaying all the paraphernalia of a paramilitary world.
But tomorrow is meant to be different — respectful, solemn, remembering, celebrating.
A few hours later a senior republican expressed the hope that “things will calm down now”.
Before the ruling, Donegall Street close to St Patrick’s Church had all the potential to be a place of battle.
But protest numbers have been reduced from 500 to 150, and supporters are not allowed to follow the march at this point.
“You’ll have a massive police operation,” one source commented.
But what about the dissidents, could they try something to upset things?
“They might try,” a senior republican responded, not in terms of any knowledge, but only to suggest the possibility.
Oglaigh na hEireann used Ardoyne on July 12 to fire on police; used that place of parade and protesting deadlock to remind us all of the threat they pose.
This is one of the things security and intelligence eyes and ears have to be alert to, that a huge police presence, within the frame of marching controversy, means officers are potential targets.
There are also loyalists stirring this parading pot, trying to present it as some last stand to resist an attack on Protestant culture and heritage. These are some of the ingredients that will be mixed together within this marching recipe.
No one is talking doom and gloom, but rather of a day when police will hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.
Almost 20 years after the ceasefires, this marching question remains unanswered.