A possible split between loyalist protestors and the Orange Order in north Belfast has been averted thanks to a “clear the air” public meeting last night.
News of behind the scenes meetings between the Order and local nationalist representatives had angered those manning the Twaddell protest camp.
However, last night’s heated exchange of views is said to have brought assurances that a planned attempt at dialogue – with a senior Catholic clergyman acting as a go-between – had been scrapped and that there would be no further contact until the Ligoniel lodges had completed the return leg of their Twelfth of July parade.
The protest camp, close to the Ardoyne interface at Twaddell Avenue, was set up after a Parades Commission determination last July prevented three local Orange lodges walking along a stretch of the Crumlin Road back to their hall.
Daily protest parades have also been taking place and a large police presence has been evident to prevent bandsmen and lodge members accessing the prohibited stretch of road between Woodvale and the Hesketh Road junction.
A notification of the meeting said it was necessary due to “recent speculation, rumour, innuendo and misinformation”.
It added: “We all need to be mindful that there are forces within and without that wish to see us as a community divided.”
One loyalist, who attended last night’s meeting but did not wish to be named, said:“The upshot of the meeting was that there certainly seems to have been talks arranged, but that has all been hit on the head and attitudes have definitely hardened.”
The loyalist source added: “It was hot and heavy for a fair bit of the meeting. Everybody you would have expected to see was there and people were understandably fairly angry.
“There is no doubt attitudes have hardened because it was also agreed that there would be no further contact with the PSNI either.”
He added: “There was no willingness for any more talking and I would say that it has been a good night’s work. No one wanted to see a split in the camp.
“We have come too far with this protest to let something like this tear us apart. It was agreed that we had to stick together to see it out and the lodges get up the road.”
The latest disquiet comes after concerns that Orange Order members in rural areas were strongly opposed to their Belfast brethren continuing with the high-level of protest activity.
Violence had erupted for several nights in a row after the Twelfth parade was stopped by police enforcing the Parades Commission determination, leading to rumours of strongly divided opinions within the Order.
Many rural Orangemen were reported to be horrified at images of Orangemen in sashes attacking police lines on the Twelfth night.
However, on that occasion the Institution’s grand secretary, Drew Nelson, played down any talk of a rift and said he had been “surprised” at the high level of support from country Orangemen for the protests in north Belfast.
But Mr Nelson, who is himself a country Orangeman, told the News Letter there was “very widespread and solid sympathy throughout the Institution for how the Ligoniel lodges have been treated this year by the Parades Commission”.
Mr Nelson also pointed out just because vast numbers of Orangemen were not coming from the country into north Belfast — as happened at Drumcree — that should not be read as a sign that there was little support for the ongoing peaceful protest, given that, unlike Drumcree, no such call had ever been made.
News of unrest between the Twaddell camp protestors and the Orange Order has generated a substantial amount of internet activity.
Several loyalists and republicans have posted their opinions on various social media sites as well as the News Letter’s original report of the dispute.
One poster on the News Letter website said: “Dialogue and goodwill on all sides is the only way forward.
“Whilst no fan of Sinn Fein (and no doubt they have played a key role behind the scenes in stirring up the associated trouble/opposition to freedom of assembly in this area), if it helps resolve the issue then I am 100 per cent behind the Orange Order decision to meet with them.”
Meanwhile, another poster commented: “So if the Orange Order are sorting this out themselves, with diplomacy, compromise and conversation, what exactly is the camp for?”