North's parties clash in parades row

Nationalists and unionists exchanged allegations of sectarianism across the Stormont chamber as a bid to unseat Minister Nelson McCausland over a parades dispute was voted down.

North's parties clash in parades row

Nationalists and unionists exchanged allegations of sectarianism across the Stormont chamber as a bid to unseat Minister Nelson McCausland over a parades dispute was voted down.

First Minister Peter Robinson said he feared it could heighten tension ahead of the major Covenant centenary march planned for Belfast on Saturday, but this led Sinn Féin to call for calm leadership from all sides.

The SDLP secured Sinn Féin support to table the motion which claimed the Minister breached his code of office by failing to condemn loyalist bandsmen who played provocative music outside a Catholic church, and who later defied Parades Commission restrictions on marchers at the venue.

The Assembly motion required cross-community support and was doomed to failure due to the DUP backing for its colleague.

But the heated exchanges came days ahead of the Covenant parade, part of which will pass St Patrick's Church on Belfast's Donegall Street as marchers make their way to the main demonstration.

Mr Robinson said of the motion: "There is only one purpose, a purpose upon which the SDLP and Sinn Féin are united and that's to raise tensions in the preliminary stages of a march that will take place this weekend, no other purpose.

"They have been doing it outside this chamber that's why I know that this is part of that same proposition."

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell accused the Democratic Unionists of levelling allegations against others, as opposed to dealing with the allegations against their minister.

Defending the bid to have Mr McCausland suspended from office for three months, Mr McDonnell said: "We're here to hold Ministers to account.

"Were going to try to do that going forward. We may not always succeed, but we will fight the case. That is what people put us here for."

First Minister Peter Robinson robustly defended minister McCausland and highlighted the impact of decades of IRA violence, as well the SDLP's history of civil disobedience.

The SDLP noted that Mr Robinson had publicly accepted that parades commission rulings are legally binding, but the DUP leader rejected claims his colleague had a case to answer.

Mr McCausland denied he had broken his code of office.

He also cited the history of republican violence, plus the attendance of an SDLP representative at a recent paramilitary funeral.

He recounted comments made in the past by nationalists which he said "betrayed an under-current of sectarianism within nationalist thinking".

On the conduct of the Young Conway Volunteers flute band at the centre of the original dispute, the minister said the video clip that showed the band playing the so-called "Famine Song" outside St Patrick's church was only part of the evidence from the day, which he said is now under investigation.

He said the band had apologised and the minister also said he had personally met the church's parish priest since the incident.

He rejected the criticisms directed against him and accused the SDLP of playing politics.

Mr McCausland added: "I remain focused on working with all sections of the community to deliver a longterm solution to the problems in north Belfast as a local representative and for the whole of Northern Ireland in my role in the Department of Social Development.

"Whether it be socially, economically or politically, I and my colleagues are first and foremost interested in building a community that is peaceful and prosperous and in which sectarian behaviour and violence has no place."

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly said great offence was caused by the bandsmen, and he said Mr McCausland had failed to show leadership over the issue.

The north Belfast republican told the chamber: "He actually pretended - and he must be the only person in this assembly who believes it - that the anti-Catholic song, the Famine Song, was some sort of pop song."

Alliance chief whip Stewart Dickson said he believed Mr McCausland had broken the ministerial code. He was also critical of the Ulster Unionist Party for voting against the SDLP motion.

Mr Dickson said: "It is vitally important that once the determination of the Parades Commission is made, that everybody accept these decisions as the rule of law."

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