The Sinn Fein chiefs, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, stood on ground previously occupied by Unionist leaders such as the Rev Ian Paisley, as their supporters celebrated a symbolic breakthrough.
By permission of the RUC, the annual August republican march for the first time entered the city centre instead of being confined to the west Belfast ghetto. A police cordon kept the crowds out of the city hall grounds, but all around became a sea of green, white and yellow.
Army helicopters and an RUC spotter plane droned overhead and the side streets held scores of Land Rovers and hundreds of police officers, but there was no serious trouble. From the platform Sinn Fein leaders vowed their fight would continue.
In addition to republicans there were small contingents from the US- based Noraid, the Troops Out Movement and of Catalan separatists.
It was unclear why yesterday's march was allowed when others have been stopped. But whatever the reason, the republicans took it as a sign of the times. Mr McGuinness described Belfast as a nationalist city, while a Sinn Fein councillor, Alex Maskey, declared: 'We are on the up. We will have our civil rights and we will have our national rights.' When he asked the crowd, 'Who does this city belong to?' they shouted: 'Us.'
This was in part a reference to demographic changes in Belfast, where the Catholic population is now approaching 50 per cent as Protestants move out to satellite towns. By no means all Catholics back Sinn Fein, but the party is the second largest on the city council, on which Unionists now have only a small majority.
Sean Lavery, 21, the son of Bobby Lavery, a Sinn Fein councillor, was shot dead last night by loyalists who fired into his home in Antrim Road, north Belfast. The outlawed Ulster Freedom Fighters later claimed responsibility for the attack.
Last month Bobby Lavery escaped unhurt when loyalists tried to bomb a Sinn Fein office. Last December loyalists killed his brother, Martin.Reuse content