Dialogue the only way forward in controversial parade - Parish Priest

A Parish Priest has said that the only way to resolve issues over a controversial band parade in Rasharkin is for both sides to engage in face-to-face talks.

Fr. John Murray’s comments followed Friday night’s Ballymaconnelly Sons of Conquerors parade which passed off peacefully having had its numbers restricted to 25 bands this year following a determination by the Parades Commission.

Normally, more than 40 bands converge on the village, but because of the lack of dialogue this year with community leaders, the Commission took a decision to impose further restrictions which led to an unsuccessful attempt to reverse the ruling via a Judicial Review earlier in the day.

Last year Fr. Murray stood shoulder to shoulder with the then Mayor of Ballymoney, Ian Stevenson, in an attempt to defuse tensions. Many felt the presence of the clergy had a calming influence. This year, Fr. Murray was accompanied by the Curate of St. Patrick’s Parish Church in Ballymoney, Rev. Brian Howie with Mr. Stevenson reverting to his normal parade role in the company of his fellow band members at Dunloy.

Both Fr. Murray and Rev. Howie said it was their “God given duty” to come out and exercise what was their vocation.

Fr. Murray commented: “If we can reduce the tension by our presence then we’ll have achieved something. I think, however, that the only way forward is for Ballymaconnelly to start talking to local people and for both sides to show some tolerance of each other.

“The Commission imposed further restrictions this year and that was undoubtedly a consequence of band officials not entering into dialogue. This has to change.”

Some 300 officers, many in riot gear, thronged the village to oversee that both sides of the political spectrum did not clash. A ‘sterile’ zone was established in the centre of the village with barricades set up to create two lanes dividing police, protesters and bands.

The protesters, whose numbers were restricted, were split into two groups - Rasharkin Collective and Rasharkin Residents Association, many of whom waved posters calling for amongst others, ‘An End to Internment’, ‘Rasharkin Under Seige’, and ‘PSNI/RUC Stop Harrassing our community.’ Officials of the Residents’ Association were keen to ensure a peaceful evening.

As the first band - Tullaghans - came past, protesters blew whistles and sounded air horns in a bid to drown out the music.

Many local bands stood down this year so that their members could act as marshals and those volunteers marched both in front and behind bands to help ensure a peaceful passage.

There was a strong presence of politicians with representatives from all shades including Sinn Fein, DUP, Ulster Unionists, TUV and SDLP and they mingled with Human Rights Observers who dotted the route.

There was the usual sight of cameras pointing in all directions from all section of those present.

A helicopter flew overhead during the proceedings and after the last band had exited the main part of the village, police threw a cordon across the street to keep protesters apart.

Some observers were fearful that the cost of policing the parade would run into tens of thousands of pounds, but given the nature of the demonstration, they had little option.

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