Published Saturday, 02 March 2013
Protesters outside Belfast City Hall. (© Pacemaker)
For the past three months loyalists have marched past the Short Strand interface in east Belfast on the way to and from the city hall.
This has led to clashes with republicans, rioting and numerous arrests on a number of occasions.
Police had been planning to block the march into the city on Saturday and their tougher stance has led to a change in loyalist tactics, which saw buses laid on to carry the protesters into the city centre.
Political representatives said the decision to put on buses was a “welcome development”.
UUP MLA Michael Copeland said: “Anything that achieves the balance of permitting people the right to register their dissent by protest and maintain law and order can only be seen as a positive development.
“While the potential for trouble has been reduced by people taking these buses it does not mean the underlying sentiment has diminished, there is still a palpable sense of unease at the decision.”
Sinn Fein representative Niall O’Donnghaile said: “It’s a welcome move forward. This proves that the calls from the Short Strand community for the past three months for these illegal protests and parades to be taken off the streets was justified.
“It also proves that it works and this will hopefully keep east Belfast peaceful and keep east Belfast in business and that’s what all right-thinking people want.”
PUP representative Robert McCartney added: “The PUP support the initiative of the community of east Belfast in running these buses.
“People realise that the policy on flying of the flags can’t change until there is a democratic vote on the matter.
“And people will always have the right to lawful, peaceful protest.”
At the scene, UTV reporter Sharon O’Neill said the police operation was dramatically scaled back, and officers held a low-key presence at the Short Strand flashpoint.
Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr said: "Today we saw a sea-change in the weekly protest at Belfast City Hall.
"A small protest took place at the City Hall with no attempt made to parade unlawfully into the city centre.
"The criminal justice consequences for illegal behaviour over the past three months will continue over the coming weeks and months.
"As we enter the parading season, I would again appeal to civic leaders across Northern Ireland to continue to use their influence to ensure a peaceful and respectful summer."
© UTV News