Belfast Telegraph

Friday 24 October 2014

UDA parade: relaxed spirit of Ormeau Road won't be broken by this

Following a UDA parade on the Ormeau Road, Henry McDonald reports on the changing face of one of Belfast's best known streets

From the River Lagan bridge to the Rosetta roundabout, this section of Belfast's Ormeau Road has been over the last 40 years a place of paradoxes and contradictions.

I spent happy summers up there, an "exile" from the more war-torn Markets area, attending the summer schools based around Holy Rosary Primary alongside my cousins, who lived close by.

Having grown up amid the concrete, the petrol fumes from an always busy Cromac Street, the noxious odours from the small factories in Eliza Street and Eliza Street Court and the foul smell of the abbatoirs and hide and skin factories of my home area, I remember vividly that the Upper Ormeau was the first place where I smelt freshly cut grass.

It was the summer of 1976 when everyone around Sunnyside Street and Sunnyside Drive who even had the smallest parcel of grass or garden were out cutting them while we played endless five-a-side matches outside the school. Yet it was also the place the year before where I first encountered face-to-face sectarianism in the scowling visage of much older teenagers who stopped outside the scout hall, pinned me up against some railings and let it be known that "We know that are you from the Markets."

It was no accident that when I returned to Northern Ireland just before the ceasefires of the 1990s that I bought my first property in Belfast at the very top of the Ormeau Road. It was one of the few relatively socially mixed areas in the city, which has since become more Catholic and nationalist due to demographic shifts across this city.

The area back then and even now contains some of the best bars in Belfast, most notably The Pavilion, Errigle and Parador. It still has the feel of a trendy north London suburb with its cafes and craft shops.

Under the Union and Red Hand of Ulster flags proliferating all over the lampposts from Ormeau Park to the meeting of the two roads at Rosetta, people not only from both communities, but those with no religion as well as those from all over the world, get on with their lives.

On Thursday afternoon I had lunch with my eldest daughter in a sweet little French bistro-style place a couple of doors away from the Ulidia football pitches, where I used to play the game in the early Seventies. In less than an hour I spotted at least one solicitor, a writer and the critically-acclaimed actor Richard Dormer, who sat outside and kindly gave my girl (a thespian in her own right) sound advice about a life in the acting profession.

While local loyalists are barred from marching past the nationalist lower end of the road (for justifiable reasons including the behaviour of Orange marchers gloating over the terrible massacre at Sean Graham's bookies), they still parade around the Upper Ormeau-Ballynafeigh district. Some paraded this week to commemorate UDA men Joe Bratty and Raymond Elder, who were gunned down on the road by the IRA just weeks before the 1994 ceasefire.

Just up from where they were shot there is a spot where a friend of my father's was shot dead in his car by the UDA just a few years later.

All along the strip there are places that were bombed, shot at and people murdered during the darker years of the Troubles. But the point about normal life going on in this unique part of Belfast, even despite the controversy over the most recent loyalist parade, is an important one.

The spirit of the Upper Ormeau – relaxed, relatively integrated, comfortable in itself – was not broken during the worst years of conflict and won't be now.

The only thing that could really threaten the village-Main Street-like atmosphere there will be the ever encroaching influence of those infernal out-of-town shopping malls.

'Disgrace' as UDA accused of hijacking memorial to war heroes 

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