Protestant church leaders have challenged the loyal orders to prove their Christian credentials and called on unionists to accept the findings of the Parades Commission.
They branded the actions of loyalist bands who breached the law by playing music outside a Catholic church last Saturday as “sectarian”.
The unprecedented broadside from the Presbyterian Moderator Rev Roy Patton and Archbishop Alan Harper, the Church of Ireland Primate, has been greeted with incredulity by the DUP, which has refused to comment.
“We would be very clear as a Church that such behaviour is totally unacceptable and is not in keeping with the values the loyal orders espouse,” Rev Patton said.
The moderator added: “We recognise that the Parades Commission is a legally established body and that what they said should be accepted. Such behaviour is inconsistent with any profession of Christian faith.”
“I totally agree with that,” Archbishop Harper responded, describing the actions of the bands last Saturday as “blatant sectarianism”. He said: “It was totally unacceptable; it was unacceptable to me, it was unacceptable to the Church of Ireland.”
He said it was “deplorable” that those involved had proceeded to St Anne’s Cathedral.
Asked if he would consider barring them in future, he replied: “I suppose that is a possibility but I think it’s better to stay in touch and try to influence people than to completely withdraw.”
He put the onus on the loyal orders “to ensure the bands behave in a proper fashion”.
Asked whether he thought the loyal orders were a sectarian organisation, he said: “There are certain aspects of what they hold that are anti-Catholic in the sense of anti the Catholic religion, but that doesn't mean you have to be anti-Catholic people and not respect other groups' dearly held beliefs and traditions. How can you expect your own cultural and religious beliefs to be respected if you don't respect those of others?”
On Wednesday Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor Noel Treanor called for a code of conduct to control bands’ behaviour outside places of worship.
Rev Patton added: “They need to demonstrate that those Christian credentials are an accurate reflection of what they are as an organisation, and demonstrate that on the ground,” he said.
The senior clerics did not confine their comments to the bands and the loyal order; they criticised politicians who did not condemn the breaches of Parades Commission determinations.
“It doesn’t seem to me to be very clear political leadership. It seems to me to be avoiding the issue,” Rev Harper said.
Echoing the words of Terry Spence, chairman of the Police Federation, he said: “The Parades Commission is the only show in town. We need something that will help us to deal with the potentially contentious issue of parading and the Parades Commission has been put in place as the legal authority to do so.”
However, Presbyterian minister Rev Mervyn Gibson, a chaplain to the Orange and Black institutions, pronounced himself “bemused” by the moderator’s comments.
He stated: “If Roy is talking about the scuffle, or the guy walking through the protest or the police being injured, I also condemn that.”
However, he added: “If he is condemning a peaceful protest by a band playing a hymn, of course I wouldn’t condemn that.”