Ardoyne: Orange Order again applies for contentious city parade past north Belfast flashpoint
'Element of mischief' in bid for Covenant march
The Orange Order has made an unexpected attempt to walk along the north Belfast road at the heart of a toxic parading row.
The Parades Commission has been notified of an Orange march along the Crumlin Road, past the Ardoyne shops, later this month.
The demonstration is scheduled to take place on Sunday, September 28 and will mark the 102nd anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, according to organisers.
It is the first time the contentious stretch of road has been selected for the commemoration parade – a move last night described as "mischievous".
The timing of the application couldn't be worse for First Minister Peter Robinson as he attempts to get Stormont parties involved in negotiations which could include contentious parades.
While Sinn Fein looks likely to enter talks aimed at securing the future of Stormont, it has expressed concerns that including groups such as the Orange Order could potentially hijack progress.
Orangemen and band members plan to walk from the Shankill area to the Woodvale Road and along the Crumlin Road past the Ardoyne shop fronts to Ligoniel.
It is the same route from which marchers were prevented from proceeding along on July 12 last year, causing a huge political fallout.
Nightly protests continue to take place in the area with a permanent protest camp at Twaddell Avenue costing millions of pounds to police.
The return leg of this year's Twelfth parade was also banned from the contested stretch of the Crumlin Road.
Orange Order grand chaplain the Rev Mervyn Gibson told the Belfast Telegraph the parade was planned to take place before a religious service. He said it was "not specifically" linked to the Twelfth stalemate.
"It is a service of thanksgiving for the Ulster Covenant," he said. "There will be an open-air service at the site of Ligoniel Orange Hall. We're hoping, as we do for many of our services, to parade to that event."
Asked why that particular route was chosen, the Rev Gibson replied: "Districts decide at different times to celebrate different things and they decided they want to celebrate the Ulster Covenant or Ulster Day this year.
"Obviously it's the same route (as the contested Twelfth stretch) so it will be interesting to see what happens. But no, it is a genuine open-air religious service organised by No1 District."
Around 350 people are set to take part along with three bands.
They include the Pride of Ardoyne Flute Band, North Belfast Young Loyalists Flute Band and Pride of the West.
North Belfast SDLP MLA Alban Maginness said plans for the parade were "a most unwelcome development".
"Given the largely peaceful marching season we had it's highly regrettable the Orange Order should organise an unprecedented Ulster Covenant parade along this contentious route," he said.
"It strikes me this might be seen as a proxy return parade which has in the past been re-routed by the Parades Commission.
"I think there's an element of mischief here, whether intended or not, and this will raise tensions and cause grave concern. It's something we do not need."
The parading watchdog is due to consider the application next week.
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has been considering a special, targeted investigation – suggested by the Belfast Telegraph – into the circumstances of the contentious Crumlin Road Twelfth parade, to which both Sinn Fein and the SDLP have said they would be opposed.
Unionist leaders vowed there would be a so-called graduated response after a Twelfth feeder parade was blocked from the Crumlin Road for the second successive year in July. On July 4, a Belfast Telegraph editorial suggested a commission, headed by a UK judge who could compel witnesses to attend, could be set up to make recommendations on the way forward ahead of next year's marching season. First Minister Peter Robinson described the setting up of such a commission as a "commonsense proposal".