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19 March 1998 Edition

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Here they come......again

by Laura Friel

It was a first. A St Patrick's Day Parade to the heart of Belfast city centre. It was brilliant. Tens of thousands of people celebrating their birthright not in a triumphalist display but with self effacing good humour. It was a day for families to relax and enjoy.

For Belfast nationalists, who only a few weeks ago were living under the shadow of a loyalist sectarian murder campaign, it was an opportunity to walk free from fear. It was a taste of equal citizenship long denied.

A few years ago it hardly seemed possible. In the sunshine of an unexpectedly warm spring day, Belfast city centre, formally a no-go area for nationalists became a ``Let's Go'' area.

As people gathered shortly before midday at West Belfast's Dunville Park, it was obvious the parade would not just meet the expectations of the organiers but outstrip all expectation.

By the time the revellers reached the city's Castle Street it was clearly the largest turnout since US President Clinton had joined the Christmas celebrations of 1995. At Royal Avenue, West Belfast was joined by the North Belfast contingent, meeting parades from South and East Belfast at the City Hall.

Just over a month ago, nationalists joining a city centre rally against loyalist terror were jeered and derided. Admidst a sea of green, the British national flag flying from the City Hall seemed out of place, almost forlorn. When a group of youngsters climbed the statue of Queen Victoria to place a Tricolour in her hand, nobody seemed to mind. On such a good humoured day, perhaps even the English monarch, renowned for not being amused, simply enjoyed the joke.
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