Loyalists who gathered in Belfast city centre on Saturday for a protest march said they have not gone and will not go away so long as the flag is restricted to designated days at City Hall and the Parades Commission remains in existence.
A crowd of around 2,000 stood outside the front of City Hall, more than 10 months since the flag was removed, from midday and waved flags until bands lead a parade down Royal Avenue.
A Parades Commission determination for the application from a group calling themselves the Loyal Peaceful Protestors ruled that the parade should begin at 12.30pm and clear the city centre by 1pm, but protestors made it clear from early on they would hold the parade later than that time.
The first protestor to arrive at City Hall told the News Letter the protest each Saturday is held between 1pm and 2pm and Saturday would be no different.
There was a heavy police presence in the city centre, with Land Rovers parked throughout the main shopping area and officers on patrol.
One officer used a megaphone to warn protestors just before 12.30pm that gathering in the area after that time could leave them “liable to prosecution”.
The warnings continued over the next hour and signs on Royal Avenue warned that, after 12.30pm, the parade had become “unlawful”.
While one of the protest organisers, who did not wish to be named, said politicians had been asked to the day’s demonstration, none were seen to have taken up the invitation.
Former deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast Billy Dickson and his wife Ann said they have been at the protests on numerous occasions since the December vote to restrict the flag to fly on designated days only.
Mr Dickson said he could not see any of the protestors, including himself, giving up after the council vote which he likened to a “declaration of war” on Unionist culture.
“I think as long as one person comes along the protests will continue until such times as the flag goes back on the City Hall,” said the 66 year-old. “There’s more union flags about this city than ever before.”
But the reasons for protests have become much wider than the flag, he added.
“There’s been a considerable amount, in people’s eyes, of political policing. I think the main reason (for Saturday’s demonstration) is the way flag protesters have been treated. They see it as political policing.”
A recent Parades Commission determination on three parades in north Belfast next Thursday, Friday and Saturday was also a talking point.
The ruling prohibits music from being played between Twaddell Avenue and Woodvale Drive, at the junction of Twaddell Avenue and Crumlin Road.
William Millen, wearing the sash of the Sandy Row B Specials but speaking as an individual, said the ruling was “stupid” and said the people have made their voices heard over the last number of months.
He said: “This protest here doesn’t belong to any party, any organisation, doesn’t belong to the Orange Order, doesn’t belong to the DUP/UUP. It belongs to the people.”
As Richard Haass flew out of Belfast following the first round of talks on flags, parading and dealing with the past, Noel Harron of Shankill Road Heroes had a message for him.
“Be fair, that’s all I would ask of him,” he said. “Because I don’t think we are being treated fairly. I don’t think he can judge if he doesn’t see for himself. It’s easy to sit in a room and make opinions, but you have to see the people to actually see how they feel.”
Following what police said were “widespread breaches” of the Parades Commission ruling a PSNI spokeswoman said an investigation will be held.
“The Parades Commission determination was that the parade would be clear of Belfast City Centre by 1pm,” said the spokeswoman. “Police can confirm that there were widespread breaches of this determination. Police warned Protestors through matrix signs and loud hailers that they were in breach of the Parades determination.
“Evidence gathering teams were deployed as part of the policing operation and breaches of the Parades Commission determination will be investigated in due course.”