A VICTORY for common sense was how a parish priest summed up last Friday night’s controversial Ballymaconnelly band parade in Rasharkin which passed off without any serious incident although there was some trouble later.
Fr. John Murray, PP of St. Mary’s, and the DUP Mayor of Ballymoney, Councillor Ian Stevenson, had earlier taken the bold move of issuing a joint statement appealing for calm and urging everyone to respect law and order and culture on all sides.
That, along with a robust policing presence and a large number of marshals who walked behind each band, ensured that the parade itself was virtually trouble free.
Police received a report of a banger being thrown onto the Bann Road around 9.30pm on Friday and it landed between two bands and no one was injured.
Earlier in the day, around 4.30pm, police recovered two intact petrol bombs in a hedgerow and there was some trouble shortly after midnight, on Saturday morning, when two petrol bombs were thrown at police at Main Street.
Officers had returned to the area after reports came in around 11pm on Friday of passing cars being attacked by stones.
During the parade, Fr. Murray and Cllr. Stevenson positioned themselves directly in front of the protesters - thought to number more than 100 - where police had created a ‘sterile’ zone in the middle of the village, separating those protesters and parade supporters. Only press, parade monitors and politicans were allowed inside the restricted area.
As bands walked by, protesters held aloft placards calling for an end to ‘sectarian parades in Rasharkin’. Whistles were blown and bands were jeered and there was one incident which many saw the funny side of when a band member dropped his mace in front of the protesters leaving him to face howls of laughter.
At least nine Tactical Support Group units of police along with a dog-handling team and a police helicopter which monitored the situation throughout the evening, effectively threw a ring of steel around Rasharkin. The 200 plus officers ensured that any hint of violence would be stamped on immediately. Barriers were also placed along the Main Street between marchers and protesters.
But many are commenting that in addition to the police operation, the presence of Fr. Murray and Cllr. Stevenson had a positive influence in a very public show of unity.
Explaining why a joint statement, which had been discussed by interested parties in the run up to the parade, had been issued, Fr. Murray said both sides had different beliefs but he felt that all in the community could ‘get on’ as they did years ago.
“The only way forward is to meet people face to face. We want everyone to be at peace and we don’t want to see anyone hurt or afraid, especially old people and children,” Fr. Murray told the Times.
Cllr. Stevenson said he and others had gone to the local Parades Forum where there was a keen desire to resolve what clearly was a tense situation.
Cllr. Stevenson said that in the past a parade such as Ballymaconnelly had been trouble free and he didn’t see any reason why that shouldn’t continue.
The Mayor said: “I have met so many people from different backgrounds such as you would find at the Milk Cup and we all have to respect people and their differences and try and get people to live together in peace.
“The key thing for me was what happened years ago. People use to live side by side in rural communities and celebrated their own culture. For me, there has to be a time whenever things eventually change for the better.”
The initiative from Fr. Murray, who earned much praise with his genuine approach to the situation, and Cllr. Stevenson, got widespread support from his colleagues including MLA’s Mervyn Storey and Paul Frew who were present on the night.
Politicians were well represented with Jim Allister, leader of the TUV, Robin Swann, Ulster Unionists, Daithi McKay, Sinn Fein and Alisdair McDonnell, SDLP, present. Tommy Cheevers, a well-known figure in parades issues, said he had been invited along by Ballymena Parades Forum to monitor proceedings but alleged that restrictions had been placed on him by the PSNI.
The parade moved off 15 minutes late, but finished at 9.30 p.m. as decreed by the Parades Commission. According to police 39 bands took part. Derryloran Boyne Defenders led the parade.
Afterwards, a PSNI spokesperson told the Times: “During the parade there was minimal disturbance and no reports of any injuries or of property being damaged. The parade started and finished on time and there were no arrests.
“Shortly after midnight two petrol bombs were thrown at Main Street in the direction of police but there were no injuries. There were reports of cars being stoned in the village around 11pm and police diverted traffic away from Main Street.
“Earlier two petrol bombs were recovered intact around 4.30pm in a hedgerow near the parade route and around 9.30pm it was reported a banger was thrown onto the Bann Road which landed between two bands and there were no injuries.
“When planning for the event police took cognisance of the views of the community and relevant groups. The PSNI has always been prepared to respond positively to goodwill shown by those involved. We want peaceful parades and protests and want to put in place low key and sensitive policing operations.”
On Monday, Mayor Ian Stevenson issued a further statement which said: “Regarding the joint statement issued by myself and Rasharkin Parish Priest John Murray, we both were of the same mind that something had to be done to show that it was possible for people to live together peacefully and that life was too short, so it should be used to make things better, not worse.
“We also believed that while history is important we should shape history rather than be shaped by it. This was a personal initiative which I felt was important and in doing so I believe has been for the good.
“In my actions I did not have to give up my Reformed Protestant beliefs, nor did the local priest give up any of his and the statement recognises our right to hold them and practice them.
“I fully believe people should be able to live together socially as friends, as I know (not personally) happened in times gone by, before the Troubles changed people’s attitudes for the worse, perhaps with just cause.
“I now believe it is time to reverse the negative spiral and change things for the better again. If everybody showed a little kindness to their neighbours, perhaps particularly to those of different beliefs, then I have no doubt that Ballymoney can move forward to become an even better place for all. If the local parish priest and I could get along on social/community issues, and I do have strong views, then there is surely hope for us all.”
Mayor Stevenson welcomed the calmer environment at the Ballymaconnelly band parade and paid tribute to all those responsible in working behind the scenes to ensure it passed relatively peacefully.
He added: “I now call for people to return to their normal lives and allow all in the village to live their lives in peace. I draw attention, once again to the joint statement, issued by myself and the local parish priest, and I know it is our desire that everyone in the village should be able to live in peace from now on.”