Thousands of people turned out in Larne on Saturday to mark the centenary of the 1914 Ulster Volunteer Force gunrunning operation.
The Co Antrim parade marked 100 years since more than 25,000 rifles and five million rounds of ammunition were shipped to Ulster ports from Germany to back up unionist resistance to the imposition of Home Rule by the British Government.
While IRA gunrunning during the peace process is back in the headlines with American Mike Logan’s revelations, it was the events of a century ago which was the focus for loyalists yesterday.
High-ranking loyalist figures marched alongside unionist politicians at the afternoon event — dubbed Operation Lion 2014 — with PUP leader Billy Hutchinson making the event’s keynote speech in the town’s Sandy Bay playing fields dressed as Lord Edward Carson.
East Antrim DUP MP Sammy Wilson also spoke at the event, which saw participants dressed in period costume.
A huge Union flag was erected close to the parade’s main stage as up to 30 bands packed out the field. There were also several vehicles from the era on show.
Progressive Unionist Party leader Billy Hutchinson said the emphasis was firmly on marking the events of 1914, with no link to modern-day paramilitaries and he urged the Tourist Board to back such commemorations.
“I think there’s been a number of elements within our society, that when we tried to organise one of these, they tell us what’s going to happen — and they get it wrong,” he told Sunday Life.
“They talk about the present day UVF, and they talk about guns and all the rest of it, but when people come along to this today they will see a pageant. These are the sorts of things the tourist boards should be looking into putting publicity behind.
“The tourist board and other people get false information, as the police do. If you get false information once you should be guarded, when you get it twice, three times or four times you should know to ignore it. From that point of view I think people couldn’t pick holes in this today.”
Last year paramilitary bosses including Stephen ‘Mackers' Matthews and Shankill Butcher Eddie McIlwaine walked alongside bands and marchers at the historical event in east Belfast.
But this year a much smaller number of paramilitary figures — including senior UVF man Harry Stockman — were in attendance.
Loyalist flag protester Jamie Bryson was also pictured taking part in the commemoration, dressed in period attire, while PUP spokesperson Winston Irvine was also present.
Addressing crowds on stage at the afternoon event, DUP MP Sammy Wilson defended commemorating the event.
“There are those who say that we should not be commemorating this, because this was the start of a process which led to violence. But those who ran the guns into Larne harbour showed their loyalty two years later when they marched off to serve in the British army on the Fields of Flanders and gave their lives for it,” he said.
Ulster Unionist Mark Cosgrove also addressed spectators and participants.
In August 1914 the Ulster crisis was eclipsed when the First World War began and many UVF members enlisted with the British Army and went on to fight on the Western Front.