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Northern Ireland centenary celebrated in shadow of Edward Carson – and Covid-19

Marchers at Stormont (Niall Carson/PA)
Marchers at Stormont (Niall Carson/PA)

Tens of thousands of people marched under the outstretched arm of Edward Carson on Saturday as unionism celebrated the centenary of Northern Ireland.

Like the famous unionist leader, the leaders of the Orange Order reached into the past at Stormont as they pledged to defend the place of Northern Ireland in the UK.

There were references to the Protestant Reformation and the Glorious Revolution, as well as to James Craig, the first prime minister of Northern Ireland.

The Siege of Derry in 1689 and the signing of the Ulster Covenant of 1912, both key events in the history of unionism, were marshalled by Grand Secretary Rev Mervyn Gibson as he urged attendees to become defenders of the union with Great Britain.

But Mr Gibson also gestured to the future and the next 100 years of Northern Ireland.

“We need to become persuaders for the union, not cheerleaders for our enemies through our naysaying, infighting and negativity.

“Gurning and whinging, while great Ulster Scots words, are not the British way.”

There was little sign of gurning as a carnival atmosphere took hold at Stormont where marchers and bands from across Northern Ireland massed on Saturday morning.

Brian Niblock, from Kilkeel in Co Down, attended the parade with his wife, mother, four daughters and a niece.

Northern Ireland centenary parade
A cardboard cutout of the Queen at Stormont (Niall Carson/PA)

He told PA news agency he was there to “celebrate 100 years of our wee country Northern Ireland”.

“It is nice and Covid is hopefully in the past now and we’re here as a family having a good day,” he said.

His band from Ballymageough was leading the Co Down contingent in the parade, he said.

“It’s a big day out to be enjoyed by all.”

On stage at Stormont, a singer wore a Union Flag dress, with bunting and flags bedecking the streets in and around Belfast.

Spectators, many of whom had prepared for a long day, brought flasks of tea and picnics.

Northern Ireland centenary parade
Merchandise on sale at Stormont before the start of the Northern Ireland centenary parade (Niall Carson/PA)

At the Arches Care Home on the Upper Newtownards Road, residents were taken out on to the pavement to watch proceedings, and some said they had never seen a bigger parade in Northern Ireland.

Buses were put on for some for the one and a half-hour walk from Stormont into the city centre.

In the centre of Belfast, a wreath was laid at the cenotaph as the parade passed by.

Unionist politicians mingled with the crowd and Orange Order bands, some of which had come all the way from Canada.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was there, while his predecessor Arlene Foster enjoyed proceedings among the crowd.

Northern Ireland centenary parade
Former DUP leader Arlene Foster watches the Northern Ireland centenary parade from Stormont (Niall Carson/PA)

Party colleague Ian Paisley Jr was in Stormont too for the occasion, as well as Upper Bann MLA Jonathan Buckley and Lagan Valley MLA Emma Little-Pengelly.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie was there for part of the day, as was Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable Simon Byrne.

Everyday politics did not appear to be the priority for many in the crowd as they cheered the return of post-pandemic normality.

The lack of a functioning executive at Stormont, blocked from forming by the DUP over its opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, did not weigh heavily for some.

Adele Cantley, from Hillsborough in Co Down, said: “What we can do about it? We can’t do anything about it. It doesn’t bother me at all.

“It’s absolutely fantastic to be here and be back out in the middle of it all.”

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