July 12 marches a ‘leadership test for political unionism’, says McDonald

The loyalist marching season in Northern Ireland is a “leadership test” for unionism, according to Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald.

Concerns have been voiced about the potential for disorder around the July 12 marches amid anger at the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is regarded by unionists as undermining the union within the UK.

Rows over the protocol sparked turbulence in the DUP and UUP with new leaders recently installed in both parties.

Division was most evident in the DUP which saw internal coups topple both Arlene Foster and Edwin Poots as leader before the ratification of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson last week.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (Peter Morrison/PA)

Days ahead of the July 11 bonfires which precede the traditional day of parades on July 12, to mark the anniversary of King William of Orange’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne, a number of political posters, including Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance material, have been seen on some pyres.

Meanwhile negotiations are ongoing around a bonfire close to a peace line in Duncairn Gardens in north Belfast.

Last week police said out of 250 bonfires being erected across Northern Ireland, just two or three are sites of concern.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long is among the politicians whose posters are on bonfires.

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She tweeted: “I get trolled a lot, falsely accused of hating loyalists and unionists. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’d love to know what those people make of loyalists burning my image in an act of intimidation and blatant hatred.

“Burning people’s images isn’t culture, folks.”

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie tweeted his opposition to the burning of election posters and flags on bonfires, describing it as “not an expression of unionist culture”, adding: “It’s an expression of hate.”

Speaking following her first meeting with Sir Jeffrey at Stormont, Ms McDonald said: “This isn’t the first summer where not just posters but sometimes other edifices of Sinn Fein people and republicans appear on bonfires, and that is sinister, it is not acceptable and should not be acceptable to anyone.

Sinn Fein and DUP meeting
Handout photo issued by Sinn Fein of Mary Lou McDonald speaking outside Parliament Buildings in Belfast.

“We spoke with Jeffrey Donaldson about calm, particularly at the interface areas but more generally across the north, and we have said to him that now is the time for leadership and now is the time for those with influence to make very, very clear to others who may wish to stoke up tensions, and who may wish to create fear and unease across the community, that that behaviour is not acceptable and that they are the minority, we are the many, those that wish to have a safe and peaceful summer.

“I do think this is a moment, a leadership test for unionism, as to how they deal with this. Nobody’s posters should be appearing on bonfires and so that falls largely to unionists to confront that reality to make sure that it is remedied.”