The Belfast parade always draws large crowds along its long route, but yesterday was even bigger than normal.
That was the verdict of Reverend Mervyn Gibson yesterday, who is assistant grand master of the overall Orange Order, and one of the key figures in the Belfast march.
“The weather is always a factor,” he said of the attendance numbers, which ebbed and flowed over the years but had been healthy for recent July 12 Belfast parades.
“It is a great atmosphere,” Rev Gibson said from Barnetts Park, where he greeted people after the march. “A good family atmosphere. We always seek to have an enjoyable and peaceful day.”
Thousands of people lined the Belfast parade, which is traditionally the longest and snakes its away along the city centre and on to south Belfast. The parade began at 10am at Carlisle Circus and included the traditional laying of a wreath at the cenotaph in the City Hall.
This year there were some marchers wearing 1916 military and nursing uniforms.
The crowd of onlookers, the first of whom began to gather early yesterday, was several people deep at the most popular viewing points along Royal Avenue, the Dublin Road and parts of the Lisburn Road, but as ever there were crowds of spectators along the whole distance.
All along the route, many of the onlookers had to park their car streets away from the main path of the parade to get a parking space.
At the Field at Barnetts park, tents were dotted around the large venue for bandsmen and marchers to get refreshments.
After a rest for people to have lunch and rest, at 2.45pm Rev Gibson led the prayers from the platform and gave a sermon.
He said that 100 years ago people in Ulster had been getting the dreaded news from the Somme of their loved ones killed in action in the offensive in the Great War, leaving families broken. “Children were not comprehending why so many people were in tears and wearing black.”
Rev Gibson went on to say that we now “live in an age in which pagan Protestantism” prevails, and in which many people were losing sight of the message of the gospels.
The main speaker was Henry Dunbar, grand master of the Orange Order in Scotland, who told spectators that he had “never felt more proud, more motivated or more inspired to be an Orangeman than I’ve felt in this momentous and significant year of 2016. It’s a year that has brought the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, and the 90th birthday of Her Gracious Majesty the Queen. Brethren, if ever two anniversaries could be said to illustrate what this loyal Institution is all about, it’s surely these.”
Mr Dunbar got applause when he concluded about the Queen: “What amazing service.” The monarchy in Britain he said had “never been bettered by any system of government in the world and never will”.
With an audience that included the Ulster Unionist politicians Fraser Agnew and Jim Rodgers, and the DUP MLAs William Humphrey and Peter Weir, Mr Dunbar got further applause when he referred to those who opposed loyal order parades in Northern Ireland. “Such intolerance must cease.”
Mr Dunbar acknowledged that some people were happy with the EU referendum result and others unhappy, but he said of the Brexit outcome: “Politicians had better listen and better act.”
He dismissed calls by Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon and Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister Martin McGuinness for separatist referendums. He drew more applause when he said with some emphasis: “Scotland and Ulster is here today. Scotland and Ulster is here to stay.”
Among the audience was Ian Bell, 31, an Orangeman from Scotland on his first July 12 in Northern Ireland. “I love it,” he said of his visit.
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