March tensions rise as Orange Order slams parade restrictions
The Orange Order has strongly rejected new restrictions on its Tour of the North march next weekend, raising tensions ahead of the marching season.
The march has been controversial in recent years because of incidents as it passed St Patrick's Catholic Church on Donegall Street.
Bandsmen were convicted for breaking Parades Commission determinations by marching around in front of the church and playing The Famine Song.
The sectarian football chant is sung along to the air of a traditional West Indies folk song from 1917 made famous years later by The Beach Boys as Sloop John B.
Loyalists maintained it was Sloop John B being played.
Last year only 13 named bands and the lodges involved were allowed to pass the church. They were allowed no music, only a single drumbeat.
That restriction has been extended this year. Now they must halt 43 metres from the church, not outside it, so no music can be heard, whatever they play. A planned protest by nationalists has also been restricted to a maximum of 50 people at two locations.
The restrictions caused a predictably divided reaction. The Orange Order, which wants the Parades Commission abolished, called it a "bureaucratic monstrosity" and "a mouthpiece for republican propaganda".
The Rev Mervyn Gibson, the Order's grand chaplain, pointed out that the church would be empty at the time.
The County Grand Lodge of Belfast said of the commission "they invented new criteria of banning music within 'earshot' of a place of worship not in use, is as mischievous as it is absurd, and clearly put in place to further censor Protestant heritage on the supposed shared streets of Northern Ireland's capital city".
The Order focused its fire on Anne Henderson, the commission chair. It asked her to "publicly justify such inept decision making and stop hiding in her plush offices on Great Victoria Street" or else resign immediately.
The Order called on Secretary of State Theresa Villiers to "take full responsibility for this charade and all other decisions taken by this outdated and inept quango. We will be emphasising this in person with her at the earliest opportunity".
It added: "despite the unrelenting efforts of the Parades Commission to demonise the Orange Institution and the blatant intolerance of republicans to our parades, we look forward to celebrating our culture and heritage in a peaceful and traditional manner over the coming weeks."
North Belfast DUP MP Nigel Dodds, a prominent Orangeman, said "the latest determination by the Parades Commission on Donegall Street demonstrates that this is a bureaucratic monstrosity that has lost the run of itself, simply dances to the tune of republican residents, or a dangerous combination of both". Mr Dodds said he was particularly annoyed because the Parades Commission drew attention to the fact that Prince Charles recently visited the church.
The commission's determination drew attention to "the increased fostering of respect for the church building upon recent high-profile events there".
SDLP MLA for North Belfast Alban Maginness praised the commission's decision.
He said: "This determination by the Parades Commission is sensible and I would hope that it sets the tone for this year's marching season.
"At every stage of this dispute all that the parishioners of St Patrick's and the residents of Carrick Hill have asked for is to be treated with respect."
A report commissioned by the Order into parading in North Belfast is expected to be released by the end of the month.
It is being conducted by Dr James Dingley of the Frances Hutchinson Institute.
It is understood that nationalists have generally not engaged with Dr Dingley, though clergy have.