“Those who organised today’s so called anti-internment demonstration in Belfast bear full responsibility for the violence which followed.”
The words of Martin McGuinness earlier this evening.
There are no grounds upon which those who organised today’s Anti-Internment parade could claim to be aggrieved. None whatsoever. That is an important point to establish at the outset.
The parade was applied for and granted, along a route that the organisers correctly maintain should be open to not just loyalist parades, but also their own. Whatever one’s opinion of either the cause of loyalists or republicans, permitting parades of one tradition and not the other through the centre of Belfast would be wrong. But that scenario did not arise.
If the focus of the parade was to highlight either the historical occasion of internment in the early 1970s or the imprisonment of dissident republicans today, then there was a clear opportunity for that to happen as desired if the parade had have proceeded as applied for by the organisers.
However, the decision to alter the start time for the parade, and to not engage with the PSNI ahead of the parade, was clearly designed to place the PSNI in a position to either ignore the Parades Commission determination, or take action to enforce it.
The actions of the PSNI throughout the morning- in preparing sterile zones in the city centre to keep loyalists away from the parade- clearly indicated that the intention was to enforce the parade determination as outlined by the Parades Commission.
Therefore, it was reasonable for the PSNI to act to enforce the determination and halt the parade once it was clear that the parade would not be abiding by the terms of the determination with regard to time.
There was no reason for the parade to not start as intended unless it was to place the PSNI in a difficult position and create conditions which would require the slightest spark to descend into violence. Ironically, such conduct mirrors perfectly the antics of loyalists on the other side of Belfast’s many and varied peacelines, who have played similarly reckless games at the Twaddell and Short Strand interfaces and been rightly condemned by all shades of republicanism- and wider society- in the process. This time, those choreographing the scene have likely left a legacy of custodial sentences for rioting catholic- as opposed to protestant- youths.
Martin McGuinness, as the most senior nationalist elected figure in the north of Ireland, was entirely correct to swiftly and unequivocally condemn those involved. That is the job of leaders.
The PSNI acted within their rights today and can’t be faulted for the decision taken to halt a parade that they were clearly intent on ensuring proceeded as agreed if it abided by the time conditions. But having established a precedent in terms of halting parades for breaching Parades Commission determinations, they will be very conscious of the fact that they will be expected to apply this approach universally henceforward- a necessary step towards further establishing the rule of law and authority of the Parades Commission.