Troops' homecoming parade passes off peacefully

A tense armed forces homecoming parade passed off without incident in Belfast today where police mounted a huge security operation to keep apart thousands of loyalist supporters and republican protestors.

A tense armed forces homecoming parade passed off without incident in Belfast today where police mounted a huge security operation to keep apart thousands of loyalist supporters and republican protestors.

At one stage the two sides came within 50 yards of each other and riot police had to move quickly to prevent violence erupting on the route of the march as loyalists charged their lines.

Bottles and fireworks were thrown, but the parade of 250 service personnel, which took minutes to pass, was free of any trouble - much to the relief of security chiefs and public representatives who feared massive disorder.

Ahead of the event, thousands of loyalists waving Union flags and singing pro-British songs, had massed behind barriers just yards from where a planned Sinn Féin protest was due to arrive from the west of the city.

Some climbed scaffolding on a church building to gain a better vantage point.

When the republicans moved into position minutes before the parade was due to pass the situation came dangerously close to boiling over.

A number of loyalists surged toward the demonstrators, prompting riot police to swoop in armoured Land Rovers.

While loyalists and officers were involved in some minor scuffles a direct clash with republicans was averted.

The situation remained extremely tense for around 10 minutes with loyalists chanting at the protesters, most of whom stood in silence holding placards accusing the army of involvement in the killings of Catholic civilians during the Troubles.

Senior republicans such as Sinn Féin Stormont Junior minister Gerry Kelly and former IRA leader Bobby Storey were among the demonstrators while loyalist paramilitaries, including Ulster Defence Association chief Jackie McDonald, were on the other side of the barriers.

The flashpoint was near the start of the parade route and once the troops had passed by they continued on through the city where they were greeted by tens of thousands of supporters in front of City Hall.

After the parade they made their way to the city's Waterfront Hall for a civic reception.

Earlier around 200 dissident republicans attended a protest march from west Belfast which was stopped by police near the Westlink junction with Divis Street.

Among the Eirigi crowd were Brendan McKenna and Colin Duffy from Craigavon, Co Armagh.

Socialist supporters held a banner calling for Britain's "war machine" to be put out of Ireland.

They were addressed by Brenda Downes, whose husband John was killed by a security force plastic bullet in 1984, and Eirigi chairman Brian Leeson, a former Sinn Féin national organiser.

He claimed one of their number had been arrested today on his way to the procession, which was marshalled.

At least 11 landrovers barred their path to the city centre and police in riot gear and bearing plastic shields warned demonstrators they risked arrest.

Republicans of all shades were opposed to the parade, which marked the return of troops from recent deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.

They said it was inappropriate given British army involvement in the Troubles.

On Friday both the army and Sinn Féin made concessions in a bid to reduce tensions surrounding the event.

The mainstream republicans changed the route of their protest march in an attempt to avoid confrontation with loyalists entering the city from the north west.

Their move followed a decision by the army's General Officer Commanding (GOC) in Northern Ireland Major General Chris Brown to cancel a planned RAF flypast.

After today's event, Major General Brown said the soldiers, airmen and sailors on parade had put their lives on the line for peace and freedom overseas.

"Implicit in that peace and freedom is the right to peaceful and legitimate protest," he said.

"I think it`s a huge testimony that what we have seen today is peaceful and legitimate protest that surely says that the political process has moved on."

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) superintendent Nigel Grimshaw said:

"At the end of the day those who wished to protest were able to protest and those who wished to support the parade were able to do that.

"Clearly tensions were quite high but I am satisfied that nobody was seriously hurt."

Minister Gerry Kelly said protesters had shown restraint despite enormous provocation from loyalists.

"I want to commend all of those who took part in our rally and who acted in such an appropriate and dignified way, despite enormous provocation," said the North Belfast Assembly member.

"The conduct of our families and protesters stands in marked contrast to the sectarian and violent reaction of those who claimed to be on the streets today to welcome home the British Army.

"The onus is now on those public figures who called people out onto the streets in opposition to our protest to account for the unbridled sectarian behaviour witnessed in Belfast today."

However, Democratic Unionist Junior Minister Jeffrey Donaldson said the protesters had set out to seek confrontation.

"I am delighted with the huge turn out to welcome our soldiers home and it completely overshadowed the protests that were held," said the Lagan Valley representative.

"The soldiers now know that the vast majority of decent people in Northern Ireland appreciate the service they have given to their country.

"There was no need for the protests to take place and I think that the thousands of people who have turned out on the streets was best the answer to whose who struggle to appreciate the rights of people in Northern to welcome the soldiers home.

"I am thankful the day's passed off without incident and those who sought to create conflict didn't get their way."

The parade took place amid deadlock between the DUP and Sinn Féin in the North's power-sharing government.

The Stormont Executive has not met for over four months, with the two main parties at loggerheads on a timetable for the devolution of policing powers from Westminster.

SDLP North Belfast Assembly Member Alban Maginness MLA said events surrounding the parade and protest had seen old political divides resurface.

"Unfortunately we have seen the reactivation of old divisions which will have political consequences, in particular poisoning the political atmosphere," he said.

"We have seen the re-introduction of street politics and I have said before politics should be conducted inside City Hall not outside.

"Now we need to see conflict resolution not conflict substitution."

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