A number of people, mainly from the nationalist side of the community, have called for Sunday’s homecoming parade by the Royal Irish Regiment in the centre of Belfast to be called off. The opponents of the parade say that a religious service followed by a civic reception would have been sufficient recognition for the troops.
They also argue that by holding a parade the Ministry of Defence and the soldiers are out of order and that their actions inevitably invite protests. Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams says the parade is totally unacceptable because of the Army’s history in Ireland and Belfast.
Mr Adams, no doubt, will be one of those taking part in Sinn Fein’s protest on Sunday which has been approved by the Parades Commission. It is ironic that he and other party members will be gathering near the City Hall while the Lord Mayor, Tom Hartley, also of Sinn Fein will be as far away from there as possible to avoid having to take the salute as the troops march past.
Mr Adams says he understands how the families of the soldiers are pleased to see their loved ones returning from Afghanistan and that their emotions are acceptable.
I don’t think it is in his gift how the families of the soldiers should feel.
But why should a march attract controversy? The people who really want to see the soldiers parade are their families and friends. They spent anxious months worrying about their sons, brothers and fathers fighting in Afghanistan.
Before that many of the soldiers had taken part in the invasion of Iraq.
No matter what anyone thinks of those wars, taking part was not something the soldiers had any control over. They were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan and they did their duty. If nothing else we should salute their bravery. If anyone wants to protest about their involvement in unjust wars then they should stand outside Downing Street or the White House. It was the politicians, as ever, not the soldiers who decided that war should be prosecuted.
Sinn Fein says that the Army’s history in the city is a reason for protest. Other nationalist groups share that view. They point to people killed by the Army during the Troubles and they point to collusion with loyalist killer gangs.
Those points may be valid, but republicans were hardly without sin. Their protests against the Army during the Troubles consisted of shooting and blowing up soldiers.
The parade through Belfast city centre on Sunday is not some sort of victory over the IRA march.
It is a recognition of soldiers, from both parts of Ireland and from both traditions, having done a job well and returned from foreign conflicts safely, in the main.
There is every hope that Sinn Fein’s protest will be non-violent. It would hardly do for a party of government to be seen to be orchestrating violence.
However, if violence does emanate from Sinn Fein’s supporters, it is no good party chiefs trying to wash their hands of it. If you bring people out onto the street, the potential for violence is always there.
The situation will not be helped by the fact that dissident republicans are also staging a protest. They will want to show their supporters that they are the only real republicans left after Sinn Fein ‘sold out’ to Stormont.
It will be hard to know who they will be directing most venom at — Sinn Fein or the troops.
And there is another element in the volatile mix. It is hinted that loyalist paramilitaries may mingle with the supporters of the troops.
That should keep the temperature up.
Belfast city centre seems like a good place to avoid on Sunday.