A controversial anti-internment parade passed without incident as hundreds of republicans paraded through Belfast city centre.
It is the first time in four years that the Anti-Internment League (AIL) has protested in the city centre, after they were granted permission by the Parades Commission.
There were heightened concerns that trouble would erupt as two loyalist counter-demonstrations took place along the route of the republican parade.
However, despite a number of verbal exchanges between loyalist protesters from Northern Ireland Against Terrorism group and some republicans, the protest passed without any violence.
There was a heavy police operation along the route which saw hundreds of republicans and a number of flute bands gather in Writers’ Square before making their way along Royal Avenue to the City Hall where a number of speeches took place.
The Parades Commission ruled on Friday that participants in the parade could make a return leg from City Hall to Castle Street.
According to the parade organisers, this was to provide a dispersal point for participants.
The annual parade, which started in 2013, marks the beginning of internment, or detention without trial, which was introduced at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1971.
AIL spokesman Dee Fennell said the parade was to highlight the “ongoing use” of internment.
He also defended people associated with dissident republicans parading through Belfast’s main shopping district on a Saturday afternoon.
“I don’t think it’s intimidating. The largest military organisation you are going to see on the streets is the PSNI and they will be heavily armed as they always are,” he said.
“I don’t think people marching through Belfast city centre in a dignified fashion will intimidate anyone.
“It’s hypocritical that the main critics of this parade march through the city centre numerous times through the year, not just for religious reasons but to commemorate British military and also members of British death squads that operated here.”
He denied that any participants in the anti-internment parade have been involved in rioting in the past saying that the onus is on Unionist representatives to appeal to counter-demonstrators to “act in a dignified way”.
He added: “The name of the organised body is Northern Ireland Against Terrorism, which in itself is ironic because we have some members of the Unionist community who have no problem commemorating UVF murderers.”
The main speaker of the event, Mandy Duffy, who is the vice-chairperson of dissident republican party Saoradh and sister-in-law of leading Lurgan republican Colin Duffy, told the crowd that republicans are being held in prisons under “draconian legislation”.
She said: “Recently we have witnessed the imprisonment of republicans in the 26 counties (Republic of Ireland), including comrades from the North due to the most spurious of charges and a show trial in the anti-republican Special Criminal Court.
“Portlaoise Prison has seen an influx of prisoners held under some of the most draconian legislation ever witnessed in Ireland.
“A conveyor belt of charges and convictions has begun to emerge with arrest, spurious charges and guaranteed convictions seeing republicans being imprisoned at an alarming rate.
“Republicans in the occupied six counties also face extensive draconian policies within the courts in the form of undetermined sentences, and extended sentences.
“Those held on such charges will find themselves in the hell of Magheraberry where isolation, controlled movement and forced strip searches are used to torment political prisoners with various other tactics.
“We must commit ourselves to defend prisoners, the most vulnerable element in the republican community.
“We must make clear to all pro-imperialists that we will not stand by while political captives face oppression.”
There was strong opposition to the parade taking place from Unionist politicians who said that businesses and traders will be negatively impacted by the march.
Ulster Unionist Jim Rodgers said that any scenes of disorder would send out the wrong message to visitors from Northern Ireland, but added that he was satisfied from police that there was to be no disruption to businesses.
A number of tourists visiting Belfast could be seen taking pictures and videos from passing buses.