Brian Rowan: Belfast breathes sigh of relief as efforts to preserve restraint pay off
It was a day when Belfast got away with it — got away with a situation that allowed all sorts of sides and feelings and emotions onto its city streets, and all at the same time.
And it was one of those days when Belfast breathed in before allowing itself to breathe out again.
It feared the worst, hoped for the best, and came through a few hours of parade and protest pretty much unscathed.
At the republican meeting point at Dunville Park in west Belfast yesterday morning you could sense the intention and the plan, and you could see who was in charge.
Sean Murray and Bobby Storey — significant men of the old IRA — set the tone and measured the steps for this walk of protest, down the Grosvenor Road and to the edge of the city centre.
And before anyone went anywhere, Murray spoke of the need for an “effective, dignified and solemn protest”. He also made clear that anyone who could not “sign up to that” was not wanted.
There were many republican stewards, and there was no sense that this protest was going to bubble or boil, not even in one tense moment when the opposing groups came face to face, only a few fragile barriers away from a large loyalist crowd.
Work had obviously also been done on that side to manage and control a difficult situation.
There was a police presence in between, but not one that suggested or hinted at anything that was going to get out of control.
Loyalists did throw a few fireworks, coins and insults towards the republican protesters, and for the few minutes it took to pass at this point of its route, the military parade was met with a mix of cheers and jeers.
It could have been so much worse, but that situation was not allowed to develop, and that did not happen by chance. It was obviously worked on and worked for by all sides. Had republican and loyalist wanted to clash yesterday then they could have, but they did not.
Sinn Fein left yesterday’s scene with Gerry Adams still criticising the decision to stage the military parade: “This is the second largest city on the island of Ireland. It’s an Irish town and for the British Army to host a march at this time is totally and absolutely reprehensible,” he said.
It was a day that could have left much debris behind — political and security — but it did not, and, so, it was a better Belfast day than many had expected.