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22 June 2006 Edition

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Whiterock March: Appeal for direct dialogue with residents

BY LAURA FRIEL

Orange Order raises tensions

Tensions are extremely high on the nationalist Springfield Road in West Belfast with the news that the Orange Order has rejected a Parades Commission determination for this Saturday's Whiterock Parade.

The Parades Commission ruled that 50 Orangemen and one band could march through the Workman Avenue interface while the remaining 700 Orangemen and 16 bands would be re-routed through the old Mackie's complex.

It has now emerged that West Belfast Orangemen voted unanimously on Monday night, 19 June to reject the Parades Commission determination. A spokesperson said that it is a district parade and not a lodge parade and therefore Orangemen believe the whole district should be allowed to march through Workman Avenue.

However the Orange Order could be overruled by a combination of unionist paramilitaries and politicians on the North and West Belfast Parades Forum.

Speaking to An Phoblacht on Wednesday local Sinn Féin councillor Tom Harley said people's fears are justified given the violence orchestrated by unionist paramilitaries last year. "Last summer the people of Belfast were subjected to days of unionist violence orchestrated by the UDA and UVF. The excuse given by the unionist political establishment for the violence was that for the first time the rights of the nationalist population of the Springfield Road were recognised."

Hartley appealed for calm in the coming days.

The Parades Commission decision to allow the controversial Orange Order parade to go ahead had already been described by residents as "shameful". "They have rewarded violence. Loyalists rioted, bombed and fired shots last year and now they have been rewarded," said a spokesperson for the Springfield Road residents.

Residents described themselves as "bitterly disappointed" by the commission's decision and accused the Commission of undermining the very process of engagement it was established to encourage.

They also contend the decision elevates unionist bullyboy tactics while undermining progress towards dialogue and accommodation, so successfully deployed around the "Tour of the North" in North Belfast last weekend.

"Residents who tried to find a resolution through dialogue are being ignored and shunned. The Parades Commission has made things very difficult. Unionist violence of last year was deliberate and planned and has now received a huge reward from the Parades Commission", said Springfield Road Residents Action Group spokesperson Sean Murray.

"The message this sends out to nationalists is that the only thing the Parade Commission listens to is violence and intimidation," he said.

Last September the Orange Order orchestrated some of the worst rioting seen in Belfast for over a decade. The Order rejected a Parades Commission's ruling to re-route the Whiterock march a few hundred yards away from nationalist residents. When the Parades Commission reiterated its decision three months later the Order ensured its rejection would be played out in violent street confrontation.

Orgy of Orange violence

According to the PSNI's own statistics, during the ensuing riot 115 gunshots were fired, 146 blast bombs packed with shrapnel thrown and 116 vehicles hijacked and burnt. The media estimated that over 1,000 petrol bombs were also thrown in an orgy of violence and destruction that cost the taxpayer £3 million.

At the time DUP leader Ian Paisley denied prompting rioting by saying that rerouting the parade "could be the spark which kindles a fire there would be no putting out", while Belfast's senior Orangemen Dawson Baile refused to condemn the rioters and blamed the Parades Commission for the violence.

It's against this backdrop that nationalists will be assessing this week's determination by the Parades Commission to allow the Orange march along a contested route through nationalist West Belfast.

Three possible routes

There are basically three possible routes. The preferred option of nationalist residents is for the march to avoid nationalist homes by marching via the West Circular road.

The Orange Order insists on parading through a peaceline gate at Workman Avenue. The gate divides nationalist Springfield from loyalist Shankill and is only opened twice a year at the insistence of Orangemen determined to march into a nationalist area.

The route through Mackies is a difficult compromise for nationalists. Although avoiding the heart of the nationalist area, there are still a majority of nationalist homes beside the entrance.

Last year Orangemen emerging from Mackies attacked nationalist homes. Despite this, residents were willing to accommodate this compromise.

"Sectarianism on parade"

Loyal Order spokesperson Tommy Cheevers had said he would "reserve judgement" on the decision until "a series of meetings". The DUP challenged the Parades Commission's decision.

An international observers' report published recently characterised the Orange Order parades they had witnessed over a four-year period as "sectarianism on parade".

Sectarian displays witnessed by observers included "Orange supporters dresses as Roman Catholic nuns", bands playing "anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sectarian songs while passing Catholic churches and communities" and a myriad of unionist paramilitary displays "promoting several outlawed loyalist terror groups".

Identifying Orange marches as "anti-Catholic political theatre" the observers concluded, "these displays clearly violate Parades Commission guidelines, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and other laws". The group called on "the British and Irish governments to uphold the Good Friday Agreement's basic guarantee of "freedom from sectarian harassment".

Commission refuses to review decision

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams MP led a party delegation including West Belfast Councillor Tom Hartley and senior Assembly member Alex Maskey to meet with the Parades Commission on Tuesday after its original decision.

Speaking after the meeting Adams said: "Last year we witnessed widespread violence and intimidation across Belfast and elsewhere as a result of this parade. This violence was widely blamed on the Orange Order and the loyalist paramilitaries.

"Yesterday the Parades Commission capitulated to this violence and the threat of further violence and they rewarded the Orange Order and the loyalist paramilitaries who orchestrated last September's mayhem on the streets.

"This determination has the effect of forcing two parades onto the Springfield Road into two adjoining nationalist areas. They have compounded the problem. Rather than seeking to promote an accommodation through dialogue, the Parades Commission has instead promoted the idea of a parade through the threat of further loyalist violence. This is entirely the wrong approach.

"Sinn Féin has asked the Parades Commission to review what we believe is a deeply flawed determination."

But on Wednesday afternoon the Parades Commission announced that it would not review its decision. Tom Hartley said this compounded the wrong decision already taken and he appealed to the Orange Order leadership to engage directly with local residents to resolve the issue. "The original determination by the Parades Commission directly rewarded the Orange Order and the unionist paramilitaries for the violence they engaged in last September", he said.

"I am disappointed that the Parades Commission have decided to refuse the request to review their decision. This is the wrong approach and compounds the wrong decision already taken by the Parades Commission with the initial determination", said Hartley.

"Even at this late stage I would appeal to the leadership of the Orange Order to remove their bar on talking with local residents on the Springfield Road and sit down face-to-face and try and to seek a resolution to this issue", he said.

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