Orange marches take place to mark Twelfth of July in Northern Ireland

Thousands of Orange Order members have taken to the streets across Northern Ireland to mark the main date in the Protestant loyal order parading season.

This year's Twelfth of July parades were smaller than usual and locally based due to Covid 19 restrictions.

The normal 18 main events have been replaced by more than 100 local parades.

Organisers stuck to plans to have parades of no more than 500 people, even though the limit on public gatherings imposed due to Covid-19 has been removed.

The Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland Edward Stevenson hailed events as a "great success".

The normal 18 main events were replaced by more than 100 local parades in a number of cities, towns and villages.

As well as the reduced size of the parades, there were fewer spectators lining the roads this year.

Mr Stevenson said it had been "no easy task" for districts to organise.

But he said districts stepped up and delivered events which celebrated the anniversary of King William III's victory at the Battle of the Boyne but also "put the best interests of the wider community to the fore in relation to Covid-19".

He said they hoped to return to traditional Twelfth demonstrations in 2022.

Up to 2,000 police officers were on duty throughout the day, but no trouble was reported.

There was a significant police presence for parades in Belfast on Monday through the Ardoyne area and past St Patrick's Catholic Church on Donegall Street.

Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said: "I am pleased that today has passed without incident.

"I would like to thank and acknowledge all of the people who helped make this a safe and enjoyable day for many.

"We will be continuing our duties throughout the night to keep our communities safe."

In Belfast, a number of small parades took place before the bands gathered at Carlisle Circus ahead of the march through the city centre and on to Shaw's Bridge.

The Order said organising smaller parades was the best way to ensure the demonstrations went ahead.

The Twelfth parades mark the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne, north of Dublin, in 1690 - a triumph that secured a Protestant line of succession to the British Crown.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson marched with the Ballinran Orange Lodge in Kilkeel, Co Down.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson marched with the Ballinran Orange Lodge in Kilkeel, Co Down. Credit: PressEye

The vast majority of Twelfth events are peaceful, although in some years there have been volatile flashpoints involving Orange lodges and nationalist residents.

The Parades Commission, which rules on contentious gatherings in Northern Ireland, had imposed conditions on a number of marches.

Traditionally, parade participants congregate at fields where they hear speeches and prayers delivered by senior Orangemen before a return march, but that did not happen this year.

The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland had called on everyone planning to attend a parade to respect the Covid-19 guidelines.

Last year's parades were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions on public gatherings.

On Sunday night, more than 160 bonfires were lit as traditional Eleventh Night celebrations, which precede the Twelfth parades, got under way.

One of the bonfires included the contentious bonfire at Adam Street in the loyalist Tiger's Bay area of north Belfast, which is adjacent to the nationalist New Lodge area.

The bonfire had attracted controversy as nationalist and republican politicians had claimed that the homes of New Lodge residents had come under attack from bonfire builders.

The Adam Street bonfire. Credit: UTV

But unionist politicians rejected this, stating the bonfire was a legitimate expression of their culture, and accused nationalist political leaders of raising tensions.

The bonfire was ignited with an Irish tricolour flag on top.

Speaking on Sunday, Sinn Fein's deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said all political leaders needed to work to ensure that tensions did not boil over in the coming days.

She said: "I hope it is a peaceful weekend, I hope it is a calm weekend. All of us in political leadership have a duty to try to ensure that is the case.

"I would call on everyone, enjoy your celebrations, do what it is that you do to enjoy your culture but there is no room for attacking people's homes.

"I just hope we have a weekend that we are not looking at the scenes we witnessed a number of weeks ago when we saw tensions in interface areas, none of us want to see that.

"My message is clear, stay home, don't be involved in street disorder, that is not where anybody should be."

Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (NIFRS) confirmed they received 153 calls between 6pm and 2am on Sunday night.

NIFRS were also mobilised to 105 operational incidents within the same period of time.

NIFRS said they've dealt with a "significant increase" in emergency calls and mobilisations to bonfire related incidents over the 9th, 10th and 11th July, compared with last year when 24 bonfire related incidents occurred from 6pm to 1am on 11/12th night. 

In a statement, NIFRS said: "The Service was exceptionally busy on each of the 3 nights, with direct intervention required by NIFRS to protect properties from radiated heat, embers, etc. from the bonfires.

"Despite the increased demand of bonfire related incidents, NIFRS maintained emergency response cover across Northern Ireland through the use of contingency planning measures, enabling attendance to a range of operational incidents including property fires and other emergency incidents."

NIFRS confirmed there were no attacks on fire service personnel or appliances at any bonfire related incidents.

In Pictures: The Twelfth

The Twelfth in Newry. Credit: Press Eye
The Orange Order parading through Belfast. Credit: Press Eye
A man dressed in King William III costume parades through Belfast. Credit: Press Eye
Crowds enjoying the Twelfth in Belfast. Credit: Press Eye
Bands in Lurgan took to the streets. Credit: Pacemaker
Parades also took place in Londonderry. Credit: Press Eye
Parades also took place in Londonderry. Credit: Press Eye