THE Orange Order has spoken out against what it called the “dishonest and misleading information” circulating ahead of Saturday’s Covenant centenary parade.
Referring to the row over calls for the Order to engage in dialogue with a north Belfast residents’ group, the Grand Lodge said it wished to “clear up any ambiguity” surrounding the matter.
The focus of the tension has been St Patrick’s Catholic church in Donegall Street – the scene of disorder following a Royal Black parade on August 25.
That incident was preceded by nationalist complaints over the behaviour of a loyalist band outside the church on July 12.
In a statement released yesterday, the Order said: “The banner carried by the protestors [on August 25] stated ‘Respect St Patrick’s Church.’
“It was therefore in response to a call by Fr Michael Sheehan for quiet conversations away from the public glare that the Grand Lodge entered into direct dialogue with the clergy and parishioners of St Patrick’s concerning the issue of respect.”
The Orange Order spokesman said the conversations taking place already “addressed the heart of the matter” and that they would not be entering into negotiations with the residents’ group.
“While Fr Sheehan thought it may be useful to talk to the residents’ group, the conversations proceeded on this understanding,” he said.
“The Grand Lodge made no pre-conditions regarding who would be present during these conversations nor the numbers involved, that was down to which parishioners were invited by the clergy. We appreciated Fr Sheehan’s openness and frankness during our conversations and he advised that the chair of Carrick Hill Residents’ Group had been invited twice to attend, but refused.
“Fr Sheehan also made it very clear that he could not speak for the residents’ group, no more than they could speak for the Church. This assured us that by speaking to him and the parishioners we were engaging with those who had the authority to speak on behalf of St Patrick’s Chapel.”
The spokesman said there was a broad consensus that silence or a single drum beat as bands passed St Patrick’s added “a menacing tension” to parades.
“Fr Sheehan helpfully stated that he would openly welcome the playing of hymns as bands passed the chapel, if that was to be our decision. He added that this would be his position no matter what others called for.
“We look forward to a response from the Bishop, clergy and parishioners to the invitation to visit Schomberg House as we seek to build mutual understanding.”
The Order statement has been welcomed by UUP leader Mike Nesbitt who highlighted the claim that the chair of the residents’ group twice refused to meet Grand Lodge representatives. “We would ask the Carrick Hill chair to confirm that he was invited to talks and, if so, why he turned down the opportunity,” he said.
Sinn Fein North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly said: “If mutual respect is to be shown then those who file for the parade and those who file for a protest need to sit down in face-to-face discussions to find a resolution.”