By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The RUC forced hundreds of nationalists off the Ormeau Road to make way for an Apprentice Boys march on Saturday, leaving many people injured and bleeding.
Nationalist protesters sat down on the road to block the march after the Parades Commission ruled the Apprentice Boys parade could take place in the area for the first time in four years, despite objections from residents.
The scenes, captured on TV news bulletins, caused anger in Derry and although community leaders appealed for no violence at the main Apprentice Boys parade, a small riot broke out, with residents burning shops and hi-jacking cars during overnight trouble.
On the Ormeau Road in Belfast, hundreds of RUC riot police, moving in at dawn, set upon the crowd at around 6 a.m. Residents were dragged away, some of their heads hitting the sidewalk. At least two women were knocked unconscious and taken to hospital.
The RUC said 19 of their men were hurt. The RUC Assistant Chief Constable for Belfast, Bill Stewart, accused nationalists of outrageous behavior.
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At 8.45 p.m., 19 members of the Apprentice Boys parade passed down the Ormeau Road to the sound of a single drumbeat, before boarding buses to take them to the main parade in Derry. Loyalists cheered as the marchers approached the Donegal Pass area.
Belfast Apprentice Boys spokesman, Tommy Cheevers, a former member of the Parades Commission, said he was "disappointed" at the local resident group’s reaction and that a peaceful protest was not necessarily a lawful one if they tried to block the road.
On Friday night, there was anger in Derry as Assistant RUC Chief Constable Alan McQuillan claimed that intelligence reports suggested that so-called "dissident republican elements" intended "hi-jacking protests."
McQuillan held a further press conference on Saturday and claimed the trouble was orchestrated and that 130 petrol bombs had been thrown during the day.
Breandan Mac Cionnaith, spokesperson for the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition, claimed the Ormeau and Derry decisions had been politically influenced and had followed a top-level Downing Street meeting last week. He said he expected the Drumcree parade to be forced down the Garvaghy Road within weeks.
The commission said it had allowed the parades because the Apprentice Boys had entered into "meaningful" dialogue with nationalist residents in Belfast and Derry. This was denied by nationalists who said that, while the Apprentice Boys representatives had spoken to them, it had only been to reject all offers of compromise.
Apprentice Boys’ Governor Alistair Simpson claimed that a veiled threat of violence over the Ormeau Road march in Belfast had been used as a means of holding the city to ransom.
Lower Ormeau Concerned Community (LOCC) spokesman Gerard Rice, expressing his disappointment with the commission’s decision, said it had brought them back to "square one" on the parades issue.
He said their offer last month, to allow the marchers to parade over the Ormeau Bridge and then turn off the Lower Ormeau Road, had been rejected out of hand, and now the Apprentice Boys were being rewarded for their intransigence.
Fears for the future
"The decision means there will be 12 parades on the Ormeau Road next year," he said. "But it is not just this community which is angry. The residents of the Garvaghy Road will be both fearful and angered. There will be a parade on Garvaghy Road, Dunloy, Bellaghy and anywhere else that the loyal orders wish to walk," he said.
A parish priest who attended key negotiations also accused the commission of making "a massive blunder" and wrecking hopes for a resolution of the marching crisis.
Fr. Anthony Curran said the commission ignored a letter from the Bishop of Down and Connor, who had himself walked the route being offered by the LOCC to the Apprentice Boys, and who had agreed it was a significant concession.
"The residents are in a no win situation. If they enter dialogue with the loyal orders, they get their march as a reward for talking. If the residents don’t enter dialogue, then a march is allowed because of their refusal," Fr. Curran said.
In Derry, the two businessmen who chaired talks between the two sides in a bid to broker an agreement were angry with the Apprentice Boys for spurning a compromise offer on the table.
The two men, Garbhan O’Doherty and Brendan Duddy, could only watch helplessly on Saturday afternoon as the sporadic rioting began and wring their hands in despair at the negative image of Derry that had, once again, gone round the world on TV screens.
The entire center of Derry was sealed off by the RUC and British Army following the decision to allow the Apprentice Boys their full march and to ban the protest march by Bogside residents from entering Guildhall Square.
The RUC ordered large shopping centers to close and there were checkpoints on all border roads leading into Derry. Armored bulldozers and British Army armored cars gathered in the city at lunchtime.
In Derry, Bogside Residents Group spokesman Donncha Mac Niallais said: "This was no resolution. By forcing a parade through areas where they are not wanted will not resolve the situation. The rights of people to live free of sectarian harassment and intimidation supersedes the spurious right to march."
The Pat Finucane Center for human rights in Derry said that the violence "was to a degree a result of alcohol abuse and male aggression — sad, pathetic, wrong and symptomatic of the tendency towards violence in Derry city center on weekends when the pubs close."
The center also raised the RUC’s warning of co-ordinated and orchestrated violence over the weekend.
"Given this irresponsible and provocative statement how can the RUC justify their complete absence from the center of Derry during the crucial four hours before and after midnight when much of the damage was done?"
Disturbance in Lurgan
Also on Saturday, a number of people were injured in Lurgan where an Apprentice Boys feeder parade was forced past the office of murdered solicitor Rosemary Nelson.
At least two people were injured by plastic bullets in the County Armagh town. The RUC swooped on nationalist demonstrators at first light, about the same time as the Ormeau Road violence took place.