All calm on streets of Belfast as rival parades and protests pass off quietly
A heavy security presence ensured four protests in Belfast yesterday passed off peacefully - with only a fraction of the expected crowds at some of them.
They included republicans opposed to internment, loyalists opposed to the republicans, a far-right group piggy-backing on the loyalist protest, and a left-wing group opposed to that.
Between 200 and 300 republican demonstrators marking the anniversary of internment without trial were blocked from entering the city centre after a Parades Commission ruling intended to protect law and order.
They had claimed 5,000 could attend.
Protesters from the Loyal People's Protest (LPP) opposed to the republican parade had listed the possibility of up to 10,000 supporters taking part.
After a morning of heavy rain, however, only a small crowd of about 10 loyalists gathered at Belfast City Hall around midday.
The LPP draped Union flags on railings at the front of City Hall while playing marching band music from speakers.
Around the corner in Donegall Square East the Northern Ireland Against Terrorism group held a separate rally attended by a larger crowd of 50 people, hearing speeches from two leaders of the far-right Britain First group.
Independent Belfast councillor Jolene Bunting opened the rally with a prayer and speech condemning republican violence.
Opposing them was a group of around a dozen demonstrators from Belfast Says No To Fascism, who had hoped for 50 protesters.
The only ones not subject to a Parades Commission restriction, they chanted slogans throughout such as "fascist scum off our streets" and "refugees are welcome here, no hate, no fear".
Britain First's deputy leader Jayda Fransen attacked Islam and Muslims in her speech before announcing she would be leading a new branch of Britain First in Northern Ireland.
Before speaking, Britain First leader Paul Golding had a soft drink can hurled at him, prompting police to arrest a 23-year-old man for disorderly behaviour.
Mr Golding told the crowd he started his party while living in Northern Ireland, basing it on Ulster loyalism. He also praised controversial Belfast preacher James McConnell for calling Islam Satanic during a sermon.
Elsewhere, the anti-internment parade had been ordered by the Parades Commission not to pass beyond North Queen Street and to stay out of the city centre. Ten police Land Rovers and around 30 officers lined up along the road to prevent the protesters going any further.
Just before 1pm the group of up to 300 people with a marching band appeared holding banners urging 'End British Internment'. Having set out from Ardoyne Avenue, there was a brief moment of tension as marchers stopped around 200m from the police line before proceeding to walk face to face with them. In 2015, members of the anti-internment parade clashed with the PSNI in the city centre, while 56 police officers were injured in 2013 by loyalist protesters during the same event.
This time the mood was more subdued when protesters and police finally met. Speaking in front of the police barricade, march organiser Dee Fennell told the crowd: "The only people that are denied entrance to Belfast city centre are the republican people of Belfast, of Derry, of right across this country and beyond."
The march focused on the continued imprisonment of leading dissident republican Tony Taylor in Maghaberry. Convicted of a bomb attack in his home city of Londonderry in the 1990s, Taylor was released from prison under licence after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. He later served a three-year sentence for possession of a rifle with intent to endanger life, being released on licence again in 2014.
The Secretary of State revoked that licence in March 2016 after the independent Parole Commissioner advised of "the risk he poses to the public".
He is due for release in August 2019 if his licence is not reactivated before then.
Speaking at the rally, his wife Lorraine said: "I know little about Tony's politics, other than he is a committed republican and wants to see society here at peace free from failures of the past that gave rise to conflict.
"Internment was one of those failures of political malpractice.
"But I can tell you that as a person he is a wonderful father, husband and son and that we, his family, miss him terribly."
Some individuals taunted police officers with insults. But the atmosphere was not as highly charged as in the past, and the band started and the marchers turned around 15 minutes later.
Speaking after all the events concluded, Superintendent Melanie Jones said: "Today's parades and protests concluded largely without incident and police were able to ensure the city centre returned to normal business as quickly as possible."