Northern Ireland

Ulster Covenant march: Parties meet Parades Commission

The assembly has rejected a Sinn Fein call for loyal order leaders to meet directly with nationalist residents groups over contentious parades.

MLAs voted to accept an Ulster Unionist amendment recognising the loyal orders' "positive community contribution".

Meanwhile a priest has said he is bewildered that the Orange Order will not talk directly with residents of Belfast's Carrick Hill.

A parade on 29 September is due to pass St Patrick's Church.

The march is part of events marking 100 years since the signing of the Ulster Covenant.

On Monday, the Orange Order said it would not meet local residents, but said bands would only play hymns when passing St Patrick's Church.

In a statement, Father Sheehan said: "I am very disappointed that the Carrick Hill Concerned Residents, who reached out with no objection to parades in principle or specific requirements for re-routing, will not be engaged with in any way.

"The suggestion in the Order's statement that... bands passing St Patrick's Church will play hymns is definitively an improvement on what happened on the last Saturday in August, but this suggestion is no substitute for real and meaningful dialogue."

However, Winston Irvine of the North and West Belfast Parades Forum said he believed the chairperson of the residents' group had turned down a chance to join talks between the church clergy and the Orange Order.

"It's my understanding that the chairperson of Carrick Hill Residents Association was invited into those quiet conversations, not once but on two occasions, by the clergy and parishioners," Mr Irvine said.

"Quite obviously it was declined. I think the Carrick Hill Residents chairperson needs to give that reason."

Earlier, the SDLP and Sinn Fein met the Parades Commission to voice concerns over the Ulster Covenant parade.

Last month, loyalist bands defied the Parades Commission and played music outside St Patrick's Church.

In the subsequent riots, seven police officers were injured.

The Orange Order said its decision to play hymns during the Ulster Covenant parade followed talks with clergy and parishioners of St Patrick's church in north Belfast and community leaders.

However, they did not speak directly to the Carrick Hill Concerned Residents Association.

North Belfast SDLP MLA Alban Maginness urged the Order to speak directly to those residents.

He said: "It would be churlish to say that the Orange Order have not attempted to engage.

"But they have not gone far enough".

He added: "On 25 August, it was not the church, it was the people who were also assaulted and abused. Those are the people affected, those people need to be contacted.

"Carrick Hill residents are ordinary people who are simply demanding respect for themselves and for their church. They have been the victims and they should be contacted by the Orange Order. I believe they will be flexible."

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly said the Orange Order statement on Monday was "not sufficient".

Mr Kelly said the Order should enter "direct dialogue" with residents in nearby Carrick Hill if it wanted to find a resolution to the dispute in the area.

However, the grand chaplain of the Orange Order in Belfast, Mervyn Gibson, said the Order did not believe a meeting with residents was necessary.

However Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt argued that the loyal orders had acted in a spirit of generosity which was "positive and outreaching".

"I would be interested to hear the response from the St Patrick's community.

"The bands and the Orange Order have taken the lead and have made a gesture.

"If the Orange Order in this gesture are well received by the community of St Patrick's, then they have taken a large step," he said.

A statement from Carrick Hill Concerned Residents Committee on Tuesday said: "At two public meetings the views of the residents of Carrick Hill were expressed very clearly, no objection to parades, all that was asked for was respect for our community and our church.

"This empty gesture from the Orange Order in no way addresses any of these two issues."

The Orange Order's Mervyn Gibson said that meeting with clergy from St Patrick's Church and parishioners had been the right thing to do.

"But we can't afford to have the goalposts moved every two minutes," he added.

"No matter what we do it doesn't seem to be good enough."

The 29 September parade marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant in opposition to home rule in Ireland.

The Parades Commission had placed restrictions on the 25 August march following events on 12 July, when a loyalist band was perceived to have played a sectarian song outside the church.

However, that band defied the commission's determination, and other bands, which were restricted to playing a single drum beat, also breached the ruling.

The institution later apologised.

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