Belfast Telegraph

20 years of peace and Orange marches are still the rawest of issues... with police stuck in middle again

By Brian Rowan

The frontline story at Woodvale was one of bricks, bottles and bannerettes, and water cannon, plastic bullets and a protest anything but peaceful.


Street violence and attacks on police cannot be described as civil disobedience.

Confrontation was an inevitable outcome on this day of high temperatures and hot collars, a day of bad moods and bad scenes.

It started as soon as the blocked march arrived at Woodvale Parade.

This was the day when the PSNI was set the most difficult of challenges. In his quiet early morning words, Chief Constable Matt Baggott made clear that his men and women would hold the line.

Part of the background chatter and pressure since the Parades Commission decision was that Secretary of State Theresa Villiers should step in and overrule the determination.

That could only happen if the Chief Constable gave an assessment that the PSNI couldn’t cope.

“Not a chance,” was his response when I spoke to him in Ardoyne yesterday morning.

“That’s why the mutual aid is here,” he added, referring to the several hundred additional officers drafted in as support on this huge and complex opera

tion. The Chief Constable was speaking before the morning march and long before the much more difficult evening return.

And as we watched on the frontline at Woodvale yesterday evening, we began to better appreciate both the anger and the challenge.

The helicopter up above, the water cannon, the barking police dogs and the plastic bullet guns, all statements that the line would be held. Just minutes before the return march arrived, operational officers on the ground told us a large crowd was coming up the Woodvale Road, the seriousness of the situation written on their faces.

Earlier they had to calm the crowd on the nationalist side amid rumours that the police were going to push through the march. Again this was dismissed as nonsense.

And with one crowd reassured, the focus switched to the loyalist side and the job of holding the line.

The scale of this operation could be counted in the number of Land Rovers in long lines at strategic points in this most difficult and dangerous of places in north Belfast.

This was a night of scenes that came together in an ugly picture that was a reminder both of an unfinished peace and our still divided communities.

It was a wake-up call also that almost 20 years after the ceasefires, marching remains the rawest of issues.

No agreements, no compromises, no early solutions, stand-off and stalemate — and once again the police stuck in the middle.

For the hundreds of officers the price is two-fold: the big financial costs of this operation plus the human hurt of injured police. Late last night the police were doing what Matt Baggott said they would do, holding the line and stepping in to danger because of political and community failure.

The next effort that attempts to answer some of these marching questions will come when US diplomat Richard Haass arrives to chair all-party talks on flags, parading and the past.

That can’t happen soon enough.

In the absence of some strategic thought-through initiative, Northern Ireland is producing photo albums stuffed with images from yesterday and yesteryear.

I wonder what those visiting police officers make of a city supposedly at peace with itself yet still strapped in moments of conflict and confrontation.

The images and story are a contradiction of a narrative that is meant to be about new days and new ways.

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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