Commission plays down 'illegal parade' claims

THE Parades Commission last night played down republican claims that Friday's controversial band parade in Rasharkin should be deemed "illegal".

The annual event – hosted by Ballymaconnelly Sons of Conquerors Flute Band – was held up for more than two hours after a suspicious object was left outside the Orange hall in the north Antrim village.

Eventually the parade – involving up to 40 bands - got under way, but was forced to take an alternative route.

Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay claimed the PSNI's decision for bands to walk the original route in reverse was illegal "as it was not cleared with the Parades Commission" and has threatened to take legal action against the police.

Mr McKay will lead a Sinn Fein delegation to police headquarters this afternoon, where he will discuss his concerns with senior PSNI officers.

However, the commission, which originally placed its own restrictions on the parade, insisted in such a situation that police have "operational control".

When contacted by the News Letter, a spokesman for the parades body made clear that due to the unforeseen bomb scare, what happened on Friday night was "beyond normal circumstances".

"In those situations, police have operational control, the legislation is very clear on that," he said.

"It is up to them to make judgment calls on public order grounds and on health and safety grounds."

The spokesman added that the commission was pleased that the parade "by and large went off reasonably peacefully".

Police were forced to remove a number of protestors who attempted to block the parade and although insults were traded and a number of missiles thrown, no arrests were made.

A senior PSNI officer defended the late decision to alter the parade route.

Chief Inspector Ryan Henderson said: "As the safety of everyone in the area was our first priority, the decision was taken that it was in the best interests of everyone to allow the parade to proceed along the route in reverse.

"This gave more time to ensure that the device would be made safe and reduced the even greater delay that would have resulted if the original direction of the parade had been used. This was a practical solution to a problem that was not of the making of the parade organisers or the residents group."

DUP Ballymoney councillor John Finlay accused Mr McKay of "clutching at straws" in the aftermath of the parade.

"One could argue that their protest was in fact illegal, as they failed to stay in the spot they were told to and instead blocked the road after the security alert was cleared," he said.

"Protestors also engaged in sectarian abuse and violence towards the PSNI and bands by shouting verbal slogans and throwing missiles. I hope the Parades Commission and PSNI have taken note of this for future parades and protests held in the village.”

TUV leader Jim Allister paid tribute to the “patience, discipline and conduct of the organisers, participants and supporters at the Rasharkin parade” despite provocation from nationalist protestors.

Meanwhile, members of the Royal Black Institution are due to parade in the village this weekend.

Sir Knights from Rasharkin Crimson Arrow RBP No 989 will participate in their traditional march prior to and following the Last Saturday demonstration, held this year in Ballymena.

The Parades Commission has ruled that the accompanying band, Rasharkin Pipe Band, should play only hymn tunes or respectful music in the vicinity of Sunnyside Drive.