Hope triumphs over hype as loyalist protest flags before drifting away
Van Morrison probably never envisaged there'd be days like this as he sang his optimistic anthem during his warm-up act for President Bill Clinton exactly 18 years earlier at the same spot outside the City Hall in Belfast where loyalist protesters gathered on Saturday.
Where the mood among the 70,000 Christmas revellers in November 1995 was cautiously upbeat for the future, the atmosphere among loyalist protesters on November 30, 2013 was crackling with anger over the past.
Even so, shoppers – albeit in significantly reduced numbers – went about their business as usual on a largely peaceful day when hope triumphed over hype as support for the protest fell far short of predictions from the organisers.
They said there'd be 10,000 demonstrators and supporters on the streets and 40 bands backing them. In the end there were around 1,500 on the march and only two flute bands.
The self-styled Loyal Peaceful Protesters who organised the demonstration hailed it a success, however.
Mystery still shrouds the identity of the LPP, whose unsigned statement on Saturday said only that it was a group of like-minded people from Northern Ireland and Scotland with no political or paramilitary links.
All around the City Hall more prominent loyalist figures were denying they had anything to do with organising the protest.
Willie Frazer, who's awaiting trial on charges arising out of earlier protests, said: "I've no idea about who's behind it.
"I'm just here as a supporter of the demonstration."
Frazer was only there because his bail conditions had been relaxed, but fellow protest leader Jim Dowson wasn't present, though a massive seven foot cardboard cut-out of him was held aloft by his former British National Party colleague Paul Golding, who's now leader of the Britain First organisation.
He said: "Jim Dowson's the only one who hasn't had his conditions removed.
"He's the only one who's telling unionists to become involved in politics and get out and vote."
Progressive Unionist leader Billy Hutchinson said: "The UVF didn't organise the parade. Even the police have said the claims by Martin McGuinness were wrong."
PUP councillor Dr John Kyle, who was at City Hall even though he was initially opposed to having the march on a Saturday, said: "I've seen no evidence of UVF involvement."
A Shankill Road loyalist said: "If the UVF had been running this, it would have been better organised, believe me.
"Sure, no one appears to be taking any lead here at all. People are like headless chickens."
The Parades Commission ruled that the parade should leave City Hall at midday but it was always obvious that would be a non-starter, literally and figuratively.
The PSNI had erected two large signs telling loyalists that if they didn't meet the high noon deadline they would be breaching the commission's determination.
Just after midday, one of only a handful of PSNI officers on duty moved in to speak to stewards in high visibility jackets at the front of the crowd.
He threatened prosecutions but the stewards replied that they'd been "doing their best to get the parade moving off on time".
The comments sparked wry laughter from protesters nearby and there was a sense that both the police and the stewards were going through the motions.
Whether or not the men in the hi-viz coats were actual leaders of LPP was unclear, but it was equally difficult to establish why the protesters were protesting at all.
In their application to the Parades Commission the LPP said the march was about human rights, political policing and PSNI brutality, even though more police officers have been injured during the protests than loyalists.
While there were photographs on display of bloodied loyalists, most protesters believed that the main thrust of their demonstration was to mark the first anniversary of Belfast City Council's decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag from City Hall. "That's the main reason for it in my book," said Winston Irvine, who has refused to confirm or deny that he's a UVF leader in Belfast.
"There are other issues but it's the flag protest which is the reason why most people are here today."
Another loyalist said the flag protest was one of a "constellation" of grievances felt by Protestants.
"There's no confusion over the fact that loyalists are unhappy and it would be wrong to underestimate the depth of their frustrations," he added.
On the stroke of 12.30 – when the last of the loyalists should have been long gone from City Hall – the PSNI relayed a message over a Land Rover loudspeaker warning the protesters who were still there that they could end up in court.
The police officer's words were greeted with silence, probably because they were largely inaudible, even from just a few yards away.
The crowd made themselves heard minutes later, cheering as a man dressed as Santa Claus and wearing an Orange sash and Union flag sunglasses emerged from a car. Flag protester Jamie Bryson had told friends he would be donning a Father Christmas outfit, but unless it was spectacularly well-padded, it wasn't him – though a number of observers said they recognised him later on in another Santa get-up.
The organisers of the Continental Market, which went ahead despite the protest, got into the festive spirit too by broadcasting a message wishing everyone at City Hall a happy Christmas.
Just after 1pm – and in clear breach of the Parades Commission's rulings – the marchers set off on what was by now an illegal march, singing The Sash. They were led by the Cloughfern Young Conquerors flute band who displayed UDA flags and a banner 'in proud memory of Brigadier John Gregg'; the UFF leader who shot and wounded Gerry Adams near City Hall in March 1984 and who was himself murdered as part of a feud in February 2003.
As the march passed Castle Street the only security was provided by two PSNI officers and three of the men in the hi-viz jackets, but not far away police parked Land Rovers across nationalist Carrick Hill.
The PSNI helicopter flew above the parade at times and its crew's thoughts were undoubtedly with their colleagues and the civilians killed in Glasgow as a Scottish police helicopter crashed into a pub less than 24 hours earlier. Loyalists had insisted all along that their Belfast protest would be peaceful and it was, apart from an incident at Tennent Street when two police officers were hurt and a man was arrested.
Back at the City Hall, a small knot of loyalists who stage a flag protest every Saturday didn't leave the area until their usual quitting time of 2pm.
Saturday's bigger protest was actually held three days short of the first anniversary of the council's vote to halt the daily flying of the Union flag.
The decision to hold the march on a Saturday led to claims that the main aim was to cause havoc for beleaguered city centre shopkeepers who lost a fortune during the flag protests over the past year. Business was definitely hit and the only Christmas rush around lunchtime was for people to get out of town for the duration of the protest.
In the streets around Bedford Street and Dublin Road, parking spaces were unusually plentiful and initially it looked like Black Friday could be followed by a bleak Saturday for traders.
Within minutes of the protest march leaving the city centre there were signs that things were returning to normal.
And street performers suddenly reappeared along with charity collectors outside the major stores.