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Wednesday, October 6, 1999 Published at 18:41 GMT 19:41 UK

UK: Northern Ireland

Rivals plan separate St Patrick's Day parades

Revellers enjoying last year's St Patrick's Day parade in Belfast

Belfast looks likely to host two St Patrick's Day parades as rival groups bid for funding from the city council.

People in Belfast wishing to celebrate the feast day of the saint reputed to have brought Christianity to Ireland may have to choose between two distinct parades.

St Patrick's Heritage Association, which has links to the Ulster Scots Heritage Council, is attempting to secure funding for what it terms a 'cross-community' parade next year.

But another group has already organised St Patrick's Day parades to Belfast city centre over the past two years and claim that their event is inclusive.

The west Belfast based Feile an Phobail (People's Festival) has been the driving force behind the organisation of Belfast's St Patrick's Day parade since 1997.

Belfast City Council attempted to bring together representatives of the nationalist and unionist communities to organise the 1999 event.

Unionists are no longer represented on Belfast City Council's St Patrick's Day Carnival Committee since a flags dispute shortly before the parade led to their withdrawal earlier this year.

St Patrick's Heritage Association spokesman Lee Reynolds claims that Protestants feel excluded from the existing event.

"We are trying to attract as much support across all the communities in the city to attend," he said.

He said that the politics-free model provided by the feast-day celebrations of Downpatrick would act as the basis for their event.

Flags controversy

"Basically no political banners, no political floats, a restriction on flags to the St Patrick's Cross, county flags or the flag of your organisation provided there's no contentious symbols on it."

This funding bid has been described by organisers of the existing parade as an attempt to sabotage the existing parade.

St Patrick's Day Carnival Committee joint-chairperson Caitriona Ruane, who is also the director of Feile an Phobail, called on Belfast City Council to fund the event according to its established criteria.

"At the last meeting, the only group to submit a funding proposal was ourselves - what they need to do is to match it up against their criteria, their criteria is community involvement, event management etc."

[ image: Colourful costumes featured in the 1999 parade]
Colourful costumes featured in the 1999 parade
St Patrick's Day parades were not held in Belfast City centre for many years due to unionist opposition.

It has been a bone of political contention as unionists have objected to what they see as a nationalist take-over of the event.

The withdrawal of unionist representatives from the committee earlier this year was precipitated by a dispute over the Irish national flag.

Unionists sought to ban parade-goers from flying the Irish tricolour at the parade because they believe that the flying of the tricolour is aimed at excluding them from festivities.

The flag controversy eventually led to the withdrawal of unionist community representatives from the committee.

Unionist politicians at Belfast City Council succeeded in blocking a grant of 50,000 to the event, citing what they said was the one sided nature of the festival.

The event went ahead following a fund-raising campaign and bitter exchanges in the local media.

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