Limbo dancers and riot police... the two faces of Belfast
Published 18/02/2013 | 04:20
Belfast had a smile on its face and a spring in its step on Saturday.
In Cornmarket, a cheering crowd clapped and stamped while three limbo dancers bent their bodies below a burning bar in an act full of humour.
But just a few hundred yards away, armoured police Land Rovers and officers in riot gear were waiting for the weekly loyalist flag protest march to arrive from the Newtownards Road.
And as that protest continues, so Belfast remains a city of contradictions, captured both in that fun image at Cornmarket and in a very different frame outside the City Hall.
There were some tactical adjustments in the PSNI's approach at the weekend.
On the return route to east Belfast, riot police on foot did not follow the protesters over the Queen's Bridge.
The situation felt less tense and the small crowd did not take long to pass St Matthew's Catholic church at the Short Strand.
Nor is there the same media attention and focus.
But this protest has cost a fortune in lost trade and in the money that is being spent on the many policing operations.
And in north Belfast on Saturday, it intruded on sport, forcing the match between Crusaders and Cliftonville to be called off.
Speaking to this newspaper, a senior loyalist in the area, clearly unhappy about what had happened, asked: "Why bring the protest into sport?
"The people in north Belfast need to come out and support the Crusaders family, the club, the fans and the manager."
Saturday's events brought a comment from Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.
"These protests must come off the streets and allow political leaders to work together towards a resolution," she said.
But for weeks the protesters have been allowed to block roads and march in and out of Belfast city centre.
They have been given yards but taken miles, and politics, policing and loyalist leaders have been undermined as the tail has wagged the dog.
This protest has now entered into its third month, and a few hundred people have been allowed to believe they can do what they want on the streets of the city.