Republican parade disperses peacefully after city centre ban enforced
A republican anti-internment parade has dispersed without incident after a major police deployment prevented it from entering Belfast city centre.
A line of riot police stood in front of lines of armoured vehicles to seal off a main approach road and uphold an official ruling preventing the march from proceeding in from the west of the city.
While republican bands played behind them, demonstrators carrying banners, placards and Irish tricolours walked right up to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) blockade, some standing only inches away from the officers' faces.
With a line of stewards placing themselves between police and the main body of the parade, the crowds stood at the line to listen to a number of speeches denouncing the PSNI and wider state policies. They then joined a musician in singing a republican ballad before leaving the area peacefully.
Prominent republicans Colin Duffy and Dee Fennell were among the hundreds who attended.
The now annual event is organised to mark the introduction of internment without trial by the Stormont administration, with the support of the UK government, during the height of the Troubles in August 1971.
The controversial policy of detaining terror suspects without trial ended in 1975.
However, the parade organisers - the Anti-Internment League - allege it is still effectively operated by the state authorities in the present day, through the use of lengthy remand periods ahead of trials.
Gerard Fitzpatrick from the Anti-Internment League praised the conduct of those who had demonstrated.
He claimed the prohibition proved the city was not a "share spaced" for all traditions.
"Our message was clear," he said.
"We went down, we marched to as far as we could go before we were physically stopped, we made our points about internment - the speakers were fantastic - and everybody then dispersed."
In applying to hold the parade, organisers estimated around 5,000 people would take part, with the same number of supporters. In the event the actual number in attendance was significantly lower.
In previous years the parade had been granted permission to proceed into the city centre.
However, the Parades Commission - the government-appointed panel that adjudicates on contentious marches - imposed a restriction this year prohibiting the parade reaching its proposed end point at City Hall.
In making the ruling to halt it at the junction of Divis Street and Barrack Street - around half a mile from City Hall - the commission cited the organisers' failure to properly engage with it on their plans and their "deliberate breach" of a timing restriction last year.
The commission said the restriction was "fair, proportionate and necessary".
Nine police officers were injured last year when sporadic trouble flared in a nationalist area of north Belfast after the parade was halted.
The 2015 demonstration was originally granted permission to pass through the city centre, but only before 1.30pm.
When that deadline passed, the parade had not even left its designated start point in the nationalist Ardoyne area, so police commanders announced that it would be halted.
As loyalist counter protests in the city centre dispersed, police rolled out a huge security operation to stop the march on the Oldpark Road around 2.5 miles away.
The parade dispersed peacefully but an hour later trouble broke out in the area when police manning the temporary road block were attacked.
In 2014 there were minor disturbances at the controversial event but in 2013 almost 60 police officers were injured when loyalist protesters rioted.
This year's proposed parade route was significantly different from recent years, with the march starting on the Andersonstown Road in west Belfast, rather than in Ardoyne in the north of the city.
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin said he was pleased the parade passed off peacefully.
"As in previous years, the foremost consideration of my officers today was to keep people safe and ensure that the parade passed off peacefully and within the law, that the rights of all those involved were protected and that the Parade's Commission determination was upheld," he said.
"While an appropriate and proportionate policing operation was put in place for these reasons, once the parade had dispersed, the area quickly returned to normal and all roads were re-opened."
Mr Martin praised all officers involved.
"They did a professional job ensuring that the law was upheld, public safety was maintained and community disruption was kept to a minimum," he said.