Centennial parade: Tens of thousands in Belfast for Orange Order march

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Image caption,
The parade leaves the grounds of Stormont, heading for the city centre

About 100,000 people have watched an Orange Order parade to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, the chief constable has said.

Some 25,000 people took part, amid a huge policing operation in Belfast.

Before the parade started, Orange Order Grand Secretary, the Rev Mervyn Gibson, rejected any change to Northern Ireland's position within the UK.

He said Northern Ireland has "no interest in becoming part of an all-Ireland - save your breath".

The parade, which led to traffic restrictions in many areas of the city, ended on Saturday evening.

Image caption,
Bands converged in the city centre on Saturday afternoon

The march from Stormont to Belfast City Hall was postponed last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It started at Stormont at 13:00 BST before heading down the Newtownards Road, over Queen's Bridge and on to City Hall.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Simon Byrne said months of planning had gone into Saturday's operation with 500 officers on duty, mostly across Belfast.

"This is quite a significant policing operation," he said.

Media caption,
'British we are and British we'll stay' - centennial parade is told

"This is slightly unique because of the traffic disruption over the length of journey, but what we see here today is a blueprint for what could be a busy summer.

"But we're really optimistic about a family fun day and a celebration of the past."

Image caption,
People gathered to listen to speeches and music on the lawn at Stormont

People started gathering at Stormont from about 10:00 with speeches beginning at noon in front of Parliament Buildings.

Addressing the crowd at Stormont, the Rev Gibson said that "it doesn't matter what you promise or offer [in a united Ireland], it doesn't matter if every day was the 12th of July".

"If it's not under the Union Jack then count us out," he said.

"British we are and British we'll stay."

However, he warned that the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the Brexit trade deal, was a threat to the union.

"No fundamental change to the protocol, then no functioning assembly," he said.

"Because let me make clear if the protocol is not sorted then make no mistake - no mistake - there will be no next 100 years for Northern Ireland."

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The Rev Gibson ended his speech by saying: "And the cry to those who seek to persuade us or push us into a united Ireland is still the same: 'no surrender'."

He added that he wants to see a Northern Ireland that is "financially stable, where there is truly equality of opportunity for all, equality in education, an effective and efficient health service, where culture and heritage are celebrated and respected".

Grand Master Edward Stevenson said that unionists "are fully justified in not only commemorating, but proudly celebrating, this anniversary".

Image caption,
About 25,000 are thought to be taking part in the parade

He added that "disappointingly but predictably, throughout 2021 there were those who told us that there is nothing to celebrate".

"Rather than a celebration they repeatedly downplayed the anniversary and all it stood for," he added.

"Regrettably, even our own UK government did little - despite much encouragement by this organisation and others - to ensure that the centenary was marked in a fitting way."

About 130 bands were involved in the parade from the Orange Order, the Royal Black Institution, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, and the Independent Orange Order.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The new parliament was officially opened by King George V on 22 June 1921

Analysis: BBC News correspondent Mark Simpson

It was warmer than expected, and took much longer than anticipated, but the parade organisers went home content.

There was plenty of heat too from the platform at Stormont.

As expected, a united Ireland was rejected, in robust terms.

However, it was said in front of Parliament Buildings, where Sinn Féin is now the largest party, for the first time in Northern Ireland's 101 year history.

Overall, unionists still have more seats, but only two more.

Just like in 1921, politics in Belfast has entered an important phase.

Translink had advised travellers to allow extra time for their journeys with road closures and diversions in place.

The management of several city centre businesses also said they would they will close for part of the day.

Castle Court shopping centre closed two hours early at 16:00 and Victoria Square's opening hours on Saturday were 09:00 to 14:00, although individual retailers may have had different opening hours.

Image caption,
Drone footage shows the participants in the grounds of Stormont

Kieran Sloan, the owner of Sawers deli on College Street, told BBC News NI that staff getting home was his key consideration for remaining closed all day on Saturday.

"Everyone will be out for the parade but not necessarily to do any shopping," he added.

Image caption,
Spectators lined the streets of Belfast as the parade made its way along the route

Mr Henning said it was always the intent of the Orange Order that the event should benefit the city of Belfast, its shops and its people.

"We know for a fact that you can hardly get a room in the city over the weekend," he added.

Image caption,
Thousands watched the parade in the May sunshine

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