8 April 1999 Edition

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Lower Ormeau residents make fresh offer of dialogue

by Laura Friel

The Lower Ormeau Concerned Community (LOCC)has made a fresh offer of face-to-face talks with Ballynafeigh Apprentice Boys in an attempt to resolve the parades issue in the area.

A letter from LOCC was delivered to Ballynafeigh Orange Hall on Tuesday, 6 April, proposing direct talks. The residents' group said it would require ``cast-iron'' guarantees, however, about Orange Order intentions in advance of proposed proximity talks.

In the days before this new talks initiative, claims by the Apprentice Boys that they had been actively seeking dialogue with Lower Ormeau residents over the last five months were dismissed as ``nonsense'' by the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community. In a press statement released shortly after the Parades Commission announced its decision to reroute loyalist marchers away from the nationalist Lower Ormeau Road over the Easter weekend, the Apprentice Boys claimed that an offer of dialogue had been made last November and that LOCC had been guilty of ``prevarication and evasion''. The claims were dismissed by LOCC spokesperson Gerard Rice as a ``fabrication intended to destroy any prospects of dialogue in the coming year''.

The Commission's ruling claimed that not enough had been done by loyalists and residents to ensure there would be no confrontation. ``We wrote to the Apprentice Boys on 30 January this year asking then to meet with us,'' Gerard Rice said. ``The reply we subsequently received on 22 February was the first communication of any kind from the Apprentice Boys in seven years.'' The residents' group replied immediately, urging the Apprentice Boys ``to contact us as soon as possible to arrange a suitable time and place for our first meeting.'' They are still waiting for a reply. Now, with their latest invitation to talks, the ball returns firmly to the court of the Apprentice Boys.

A 2,000-strong protest was cancelled by the LOCC as news of the Parades Commission's decision to reroute the loyalist march was announced. ``We have always wanted the parade rerouted away from the area so that people can get on with their daily lives,'' said Gerard Rice. ``That is what the majority of people will be doing.'' A small group of residents ensured that the area remained quiet. ``We don't want anything to happen to inflame the situation.''

A handful of Apprentice Boys and one band braved inclement weather to march up to the Ormeau Bridge, where spokesperson Tommy Cheevers, a former member of the Parades Commission, handed in a letter of protest to the RUC.

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