Royal Black Institution apology to St Patrick's Church over march
A Protestant loyal order has apologised "for any offence caused" to clergy and parishioners of a Catholic church in Belfast.
During a Royal Black Institution parade last month, loyalist bands played music outside St Patrick's Church in defiance of a ruling by the Parades Commission.
The Institution said its anger was not directed at the Catholic church.
Fr Michael Sheehan said: "I welcome this positive development and the sincere Christian spirit behind it."
The priest, who is administrator of St Patrick's Church on Donegall Street near the city centre, added: "I will respond more fully early next week and I will make no further comment until then."
'Sense of injustice'
In its open letter, the Institution called for the replacement of the Parades Commission, which oversees contentious marches in Northern Ireland.
"The sense of injustice and hurt felt by the members of the Royal Black Institution is focussed on the Parades Commission and its irrational and often irresponsible determinations," it said.
"Parading is embedded in the DNA of the Protestant community but the Parades Commission has shown an appalling lack of understanding about what that means.
"They consistently pander to the demands of people who have gone out of their way to be offended and whose aim is to remove all traces of the Reformed Christian Faith and cleanse Protestant culture from society."
It apologised for any offence caused, adding: "We have always had good lines of communication with the Roman Catholic Church and we would intend to continue to maintain and consolidate these, away from the public gaze."
Sinn Fein North Belfast assembly member Gerry Kelly said he welcomed the Institution's statement
"I understand the apology is not full in terms of what they intend to do - a lot of the statement was about the Parades Commission - but it's a step in the right direction," he said.
DUP MLA for North Belfast, Nelson McCausland, said it was a "sign of maturity".
"Any outcome in these situations has to be based on tolerance and respect," he said.
SDLP assembly member Alban Maginness described the statement as a "game-changer", which had "transformed the situation practically overnight".
The North Belfast MLA said it provided a "positive context" ahead of an Orange Order parade in the area on 29 September commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant.
"People in (nationalist estate) Carrick Hill want to see their community and the church respected, and they are not looking to re-route this parade, which provides a very positive springboard for dialogue between the Loyal Orders and the residents," he said.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said the Institution had demonstrated "a much-needed spirit of generosity" which "creates the space for politicians to offer hope of something better".
Presbyterian moderator Rev Roy Patton said the Institution's apology and its acceptance by Fr Sheehan were "to be welcomed".
"I would welcome the opportunity to meet with representatives of the Royal Black Institution to hear at first hand their concerns and ideas for ways in which the progress, of which this apology and acceptance is an important step, can be built upon," he said.
Methodist president Rev Ken Lindsay said it indicated "a willingness to respect the traditions of others and that is what we all need in society".
"The organisers of parades are encouraged to comply with the ruling of the Parades Commission," he added.
The Parades Commission placed restrictions on the 25 August march following events on 12 July, when a loyalist band was blamed on playing a sectarian song outside the church.
However, the band defied the commission's determination, and other bands, which were restricted to playing a single drum beat, also breached the ruling.
Trouble broke out as the last of the bands marched past the church. Seven police officers were injured.
The City of Belfast Grand Black Chapter demonstration was held in the city for the first time last month.
This year, it marked the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Convenant.