PSNI question bandsmen on eve of crucial march ruling
Day of heightened tension brings parade decisions, a loyalist protest and talks that seem destined to fail
Loyalist bandsmen have been summoned to a police station for questioning about their participation in protests at the Twaddell interface over the banned return leg of last year's 12th of July parade.
The move by the PSNI to quiz the four Pride of Ardoyne bandsmen at Tennent Street police station in the Shankill area of Belfast last night has added to the rising tension surrounding parades.
It came the night before the Parades Commission determination is due on the same contentious Twelfth return parade past the nationalist Ardoyne area.
Resumed negotiations on flags, parading and the past at Stormont have already heard veiled threats linking the success of the talks to rulings on parades, denting any expectations of success.
Following the police interviews, the band members left and no arrests were made.
Last year's parade ban led to severe violence in the Woodvale and Ardoyne area and a year-long stand-off between loyalists and police, the establishment of a protest camp and nightly marches that have cost £10m to police.
Last night the Tennent Street station was swamped by loyalist protesters who congregated outside in support of the bandsmen.
Scores of people lined the streets, some carrying Union flags and others wearing their Orange Order collarettes.
At one point the crowd staged a white-line protest and the road was blocked off by police.
It is understood the bandsmen went to the station voluntarily after police contacted the Pride of Ardoyne band following the viewing of CCTV footage.
They were questioned over alleged breaches of a Parades Commission determination.
The four men walked into the police station in casual clothes flanked by others carrying two parade banners to cheers and claps from the crowd.
Gary Wells, the father of one of the men, said: "The timing of this is heightening tensions in the run-up to the Twelfth.
"The people here have lost all credibility and faith in the Parades Commission and the police. You can see how the people are feeling."
Among the unionist representatives in attendance at the police station protest were the DUP's William Humphrey and Nelson McCausland.
PUP spokesman Winston Irvine was also there.
He said: "The large turnout we have seen tonight is indicative of the sentiment and frustration and anger that exists within the unionist community at the moment."
He added: "The timing is unfortunate, the police should have realised just how tense the situation is in north Belfast and I think there are lessons to be learned from the way this has been handled."
The men left the station at around 10.45pm. They told the crowd: "We got released – we don't have to come back again. They say we are released pending further inquires and we haven't been charged."
A police spokeswoman said: "Officers have spoken with a number of individuals in relation to a possible breach of a Parades Commission determination earlier in the year. A report has been forwarded to the PPS."
The move to quiz the band members came against the backdrop of the resumed negotiations between all five Executive parties over flags, parades and the past.
Stormont leaders are coming under pressure to hammer out a deal on the three thorny issues by next week's Twelfth celebrations.
Tomorrow will conclude this week's three-day session of talks, with a further three-day negotiation planned next week.
Hopes of a breakthrough are low and there were veiled threats yesterday that rulings on controversial Orange demonstrations could derail the renewed discussions.
DUP junior minister Jonathan Bell linked the success of the renewed talks – six months after negotiations chaired by American diplomat Dr Richard Haass collapsed on New Year's Eve – to parades.
"We are very clear that the success of these talks will be based upon tolerance and respect," he said.
"We look very much towards recent issues of parading, we look at the deficit there is within nationalism – the lack of tolerance, the lack of respect, the lack of accommodation."
Speaking in London, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said there was a lot of pessimism, scepticism and cynicism about the outcome of the talks, but that his party was committed to achieving agreement.
STORY SO FAR
Serious violence broke out last summer when Orangemen were banned by the Parades Commission from parading past the nationalist Ardoyne on their way back from traditional Twelfth of July commemorations. The ruling on this year's Twelfth of July parade is expected today and comes as a new round of talks began to address the issues of parading, flags and the past.