The body that rules on disputed parades in the North today stood by its decision to allow a republican protest near the route of an army homecoming event.
There are widespread fears that Sunday’s Royal Irish Regiment parade in Belfast could spark trouble with large crowds of demonstrators and supporters set to descend on the city centre.
The Parades Commission, which has come under criticism from unionists after allowing a Sinn Fein organised protest to assemble around 50m from the army event, said it would not be reviewing its decision.
The parade is being staged to mark the RIR’s return from its recent deployment in Afghanistan.
While the majority of unionists support the event republicans claim it is inappropriate given the fact British Army soldiers were responsible for killing Catholic civilians during the Troubles.
“We have been asked to review our decisions but in fact there are very narrow grounds upon which we can review decisions and in this instance the Commission did not deem that there were sufficient grounds for a review,” said Parades Commission chairman Roger Poole.
Sinn Féin has pledged its demonstration will be entirely peaceful and well stewarded.
However concern still centres on non-sanctioned marches by dissident republicans elements opposed to the peace process and loyalists who have also been trying to mobilise people to come out to support the army.
Mr Poole called on everyone going to the city centre to behave appropriately.
“We would ask that those who intend to come to the city on Sunday review their own positions and redouble their efforts to take tension out of this issue in advance of the parade,” he said.
“Belfast deserves a peaceful weekend and the citizens and traders in the city are entitled to a trouble-free day. Anyone intent on causing or contributing to civil unrest should stay away.”
Yesterday it emerged that the most senior military figure in the North has written to all troops due to take part in Sunday’s event.
The Special Order issued by General Officer Commanding (GOC) Major General Chris Brown urged soldiers and their friends and families to act with dignity and respect at all times during the parade.
Major General Brown said the event was not a celebration of war nor was it an excuse to deepen divisions in the North.
He also reminded the soldiers that not everyone in the region supported the British Army and that the right to protest was one they should respect.
Mr Poole welcomed the senior officer’s remarks.
“I acknowledge the helpful comments from the GOC of the British Army who has recognised that not everyone in the North supports the army and that there is a legitimate right to a legal protest.
“It is not helpful that some political and community leaders continue to call for either the homecoming parade or the legally notified protest (Sinn Féin’s), to be banned.
“Now is the time for an effort to be made to reduce rather than heighten tension around this parade and protest. There is an onus on those political and community leaders in a position of influence to demonstrate leadership between now and Sunday through their words, their actions and their commitment to non violent actions.
“Our door remains open to all political parties and to those organising protests and parades to come into the Commission and discuss with us how best to ensure a peaceful day.”
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown yesterday appealed for calm during the event.