Ulster Unionist councillors in Belfast are seeking an urgent meeting with the Parades Commission after a parade attended by several leading republicans was allowed to pass through the city centre.
Saturday marked the first time in four years that the Anti-Internment League (AIL) has held a protest march in the centre of Belfast, after they were granted permission by the Parades Commission.
There were heightened concerns that trouble would erupt as two loyalist counter-demonstrations took place along the route of the republican parade.
However, despite a number of verbal exchanges between loyalist protestors from Northern Ireland Against Terrorism group and some republicans, the protest passed without any violence.
The UUP’s Jim Rodgers said his party wanted answers from the Parades Commission as to why the march was allowed to happen and why organisers were allowed to make a late amendment to the route.
The march was initially planned to finish at city hall, but on Friday the organisers requested permission for a return leg which was granted that same day.
Mr Rodgers said: “It was a disgrace in the first place that they got permission.
“Our team on Belfast City Council will be seeking an urgent meeting with the Parades Commission.
“Whenever you look at the number of terrorists involved in that parade – people who have committed some terrible crimes and were rightfully punished – this was just to annoy people, to create tension.
“I think with this particular group you’re going to see more and more parades from them. It’s people like that who we don’t want. They are not peace-loving people.
“I know many members of the Catholic community who were horrified by the presence of some very prominent republicans who have been in and out of our courts and prison. It’s just sickening.”
In terms of the late application for a return leg which was granted by the Parades Commission, Mr Rodgers said: “You’re meant to give 28 days notice. There has to be consistency here. Why did these people not – when they were making the initial application – also apply for a return parade?”
The Parades Commission ruled on Friday that participants in the parade could make a return leg from city hall to Castle Street.
According to the parade organisers, this was to provide a dispersal point for participants.
There was a heavy police operation along the route which saw hundreds of republicans and a number of flute bands gather in Writers’ Square before making their way along Royal Avenue to the City Hall where a number of speeches took place.
Of the impact on trade in Belfast the UUP man said: “The city was very quiet on Saturday. I’ve spoken to a number of traders and shoppers who told me quite clearly that the anti-internment march reduced the number of people who came into Belfast.
“There was a very large police presence and I have to commend the police under extremely difficult circumstances.
“What I want to see is a peaceful Belfast. One where people can come together, work together, attend events together. The people involved in this march don’t want that.”
AIL spokesman Dee Fennell defended people associated with dissident republicans parading through Belfast’s main shopping district: “I don’t think it’s intimidating. The largest military organisation you are going to see on the streets is the PSNI and they will be heavily armed as they always are. I don’t think people marching through Belfast city centre in a dignified fashion will intimidate anyone.
“It’s hypocritical that the main critics of this parade march through the city centre numerous times through the year, not just for religious reasons but to commemorate British military and also members of British death squads that operated here.”