Heavy police presence as dissidents prepare for anti-internment march
A major police operation will be in place today as dissident republicans march through Belfast city centre for the first time in four years.
Loyalist counter-demonstrations are expected as republicans make their way to City Hall for an anti-internment rally.
The main speaker at the event will be Mandy Duffy, the vice-chairperson of dissident republican party Saoradh, and sister-in-law of leading Lurgan republican Colin Duffy.
The parade organisers pledged their march would be peaceful as unionists yesterday expressed fears of serious disturbances on the streets.
Up to 1,000 republicans and four flute bands are taking part in the event.
An Ulster Unionist delegation held an hour-long meeting with PSNI officers in Musgrave Street police station yesterday.
Speaking afterwards, Councillor Jim Rodgers said he was satisfied with the security arrangements that would be in place.
Mr Rodgers said: "Saturday is a busy shopping day and the sales mean even more people will be in town.
"Our traders are already under enough pressure. My party sought assurances from the police that there will be no disruption to business. We are very happy with the plans that police will be putting into operation.
"We would appeal to both the parade organisers and counter-demonstrators to make sure they act within the law.
"There must be no violence or unruly behaviour in the heart of our city centre."
Mr Rodgers said scenes of disorder would send out the wrong message to visitors in Belfast from outside Northern Ireland.
The UUP councillor said the Parades Commission should not have given the go-ahead for the demonstration.
"It will pass the site where two UDR soldiers were murdered in an IRA bomb in 1988 and this fact alone is enough to cause great anger and offence," he added.
Dee Fennell of the Anti-Internment League dismissed suggestions that those taking part in the parade would be involved in unruly behaviour.
He said: "There will be no attacks or violence by anyone taking part in the parade. Rather than lecturing us, unionist representatives must use their influence to ensure the counter-demonstrators are peaceful".
Mr Fennell said republicans were looking forward to marching in the city for the first time in four years.
"We see the parade as part of reclaiming Belfast city centre for everyone.
"The Parades Commission had no choice but to approve our application to march as continuing to deny us that right was discriminatory," he added.
Republicans will gather at Writers' Square beside St Anne's Cathedral at lunchtime and march up Royal Avenue and into Donegall Place to City Hall, where speakers will address the rally.
The crowd was due to disperse at 2pm but the organisers yesterday notified the Parades Commission of their intention to hold a return parade through the city centre which will finish in Castle Street.
"Loyalists will not be able to protest against this return march as it is now too late to file for a protest," Mr Fennell said.
In 2015, there were clashes between the PSNI and republicans after police stopped the anti-internment march from entering the city centre.
The previous year the parade went ahead amid a massive police operation which saw streets blocked off hours in advance.
In 2013, 56 PSNI officers were injured after loyalist protesters attacked the police during a parade.