Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Homecoming parades

Left right, left right. But will there be an about-turn?

The ongoing saga over whether or not to stage a military parade through Belfast to honour soldiers recently returned from service in Afghanistan certainly seems to have the Ministry of Defence in a spin.

First the MoD said 'no'. Then they said 'we haven't decided yet'. And, in their latest round of briefings, the Whitehall mandarins have been saying 'let's ask the soldiers what they want to do'.

Confusion appears to be their new weapon of choice.

Around 1,500 soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR) and Irish Guards returned from a gruelling six-month stint in Helmand Province just over three weeks ago.

The RIR - which lost three men from Northern Ireland - is confirmed to be taking part in events at Ballymena, Castlereagh and Lisburn, where they will be granted the Freedom of the Borough later this month.

But the row over whether they can march on the streets of Belfast continues.

Even Prime Minister David Cameron has waded in.

The MoD appears to have been on the back foot since unionists expressed outrage that a Belfast City Council invitation to organise a parade was turned down.

They have been desperately trying to soften the blow for the DUP, PUP, UUP and Alliance Party, who all want to see the parade take place.

Offers of 'further discussions' were mooted again late last week, with a second letter being written to the council.

The last homecoming parade through Belfast in 2008 generated a security bill running into millions of pounds as police riot squads had to keep rival factions of hardline loyalists and republicans apart.

Afterwards, even the mere mention of the word 'homecoming' sent shivers down the spines of MoD officials.

And in 2009, following the murders of Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey outside Massereene Army barracks, plans to recognise the Queen's Royal Hussars' service in Iraq were abandoned amid security fears.

I can recall one unfortunate young lieutenant who felt the wrath of his superiors for expressing his disappointment to the Belfast Telegraph.

So the latest MoD tactic of asking soldiers where they stand on the contentious issue is really an astute move.

Surely troops just follow orders, don't they?

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