And now they hope to turn attention to Pat’s parade

It only takes 70 flag-waving loyalists to close our town

By Ciara Quinn

The flag protest outside Belfast City Hall may no longer be attracting a thousand loyalists, but as this photo shows – taken on Saturday lunchtime during what should be the busiest shopping day of the week – it only takes 70 loyalists to keep shoppers out of the city centre.

What should be a bustling Donegall Place in the spring sunshine is empty and cold as a tiny band of loyalists protest outside Belfast City Hall at the decision last December to take the union flag down and instead fly it on 18 designated days.

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After this photograph was taken, flag protestors later on Saturday afternoon held  another protest outside Crusaders Football Club on the Shore Road in North Belfast where table-toppers Cliftonville FC – whose supporters mainly come from nationalist parts of Belfast – were due to play their city rivals. The game was cancelled after trouble broke out between the loyalists and PSNI.

Now the Andersonstown News has learned that loyalists, buoyed by the success of having that game stopped, have a new target in their sights.They have now turned their attention to the St Paddy’s parade in the city centre with a view to forcing the celebrations and parade to be abandoned.

This year Belfast City Council are planning four days of events over the St Patrick’s weekend to mark the national saint’s day, something which has angered many loyalists.

Last Saturday showed that it only needs a handful of loyalist flag protesters to force a high-profile football game to be stopped. Any disruption of next month’s St Patrick’s Day parade will be seen as another victory.  Thousands of revellers are expected on the streets of Belfast city centre on Sunday, March 17 to take part in and watch the St Paddy’s Day carnival parade and a free open air concert at Custom House Square.

A loyalist source told us: “The protests are going to continue no matter what the politicians say about it and there’s no doubt that the flag protestors are on collision course with the St Patrick’s Day parade and have no  intention of backing down.”

Last night Belfast City Council said their events and carnival parade were going ahead as planned.

Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP have reiterated their calls for loyalists to call off their protests which 11 weeks on are still impacting on businesses in the city centre. The loyalist protests outside the City Hall have taken place every Saturday at 1pm since December 8 – despite organisers not seeking permission to do so from the Parades Commission.

“These protestors only represent a tiny minority of people,” said Sinn Féin Councillor Jim McVeigh, “who have more and more been adopting a more sectarian position as was evident from the picket of the Crusaders and Cliftonville match in North Belfast.

“This minority will never deflect us from promoting equality and it is business as usual for Belfast City Council and business as usual for the city centre.”

SDLP Councillor Tim Attwood called for the illegal protests which have been going on for two and a half months to end.

“It is clear that the numbers engaged in the protests have reduced significantly. An end to the protests would be in the interest of business – the Backin’ Belfast campaign is having a positive impact with footfall up and more people taking advanatage of the excellent offers.

“The reality is the only way to deal with outstanding political problems is to go back to the future and engage in inclusive all-party dialogue.”

Speaking ahead of a further parade that is due to pass St Matthew’s church at Short Strand this Saturday as it makes its way to the city centre to commemorate two UDR men killed in 1988 by the IRA,  Sinn Féin Councillor Niall Ó Donnghaile told the Andersonstown News that everyone in the nationalist enclave is hoping it passes off peacefully.

“The unfortunate reality for people living in the Short Strand, however, is that they have had to endure 25 illegal anti-democracy parades past their homes since  December 3. All of this before we even head into the marching season. Community leaders who have been on the ground these last weeks are at the risk of burning themselves out.

“The PSNI’s continued failure to protect the rights of residents is glaring and I would hope that the judicial review undertaken by a local resident will bring much needed clarity on this issue.”

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