Northern Ireland’s most explosive parades dispute tonight passed off peacefully for the first time in several years – but only one of the three Ligoniel Orange lodges made it to the Woodvale barrier in time to make a protest.
The Twaddell-Ardoyne interface has seen serious rioting over recent years after the Parades Commission banned Orangemen from returning along the upper stretch of the Crumlin Road, past Ardoyne shops.
But this evening there was a largely relaxed atmosphere at the Woodvale Road, where a police barrier enforced the commission’s determination, despite a huge number of riot police waiting just down the road in case trouble broke out.
At about 7.15pm, one of the lodges – Ballysillan LOL 1891 – approached the barrier which police had constructed across the road.
A handful of Orangemen, without any accompanying band, were led by three women carrying a banner which read: “The three Scottish soldiers. Murdered by our neighbours - 10th March 1971. Never Forgotten” – a reference the IRA murder of three soldiers from the Royal Highland Fusiliers who were lured to their deaths by the IRA.
Despite some shouting and bad language from one Orangeman, the protest was largely dignified, with the members of the lodge turning their backs on the barrier and holding aloft their banner.
Gerald Solinas, a member of the lodge and the local representative of the UDA-linked UPRG, handed over a letter (see right) to police
However, it became apparent over time that the other two lodges who have been on protest were not coming to join their colleagues at the barrier.
LOL 1891 has been seen as more hardline than the others, having rejected a 2014 attempt by the Secretary of State to set up a panel to examine the impasse, and having in recent weeks rejected another compromise proposal.
In broad terms, that deal could have seen the three lodges which were blocked from the return leg of their 2013 parade walk home a fortnight ago.
In return, republicans would not have objected to morning parades past Ardoyne while the Loyal Orders would not apply for return evening parades.
However, last night Mr Solinas insisted that the failure of the two other lodges to turn up at the barrier was not due to any split between them.
He blamed the Parades Commission which “restricted them time wise”, telling the News Letter that because the determination ordered them to disperse by 8.30pm, there “wasn’t enough time for them to make it half way up the Shankill” by that time.
He said that each year the order in which the lodges parade is changed, and that this year one of the other Ballysillan lodges was second last in the entire Belfast parade.
Mr Solinas said that he “cannot say” what the other lodges would have done if they had got to the barrier, and confirmed that the letter which was handed in was just on behalf of LOL 1891 – not on behalf of the three lodges.
However, he said that the other lodges had definitely planned to be at the barrier to continue what has become an annual protest, alongside the ongoing protest camp just up the road at Twaddell Avenue.
Despite his anger at the commission’s ruling, Mr Solinas said he was “glad that everything went off peacefully”.
A spokesman for the Orange Order also said that there was a “timing issue” which prevented the two lodges making it to the barrier in time.