Belfast — Thousands of Ulster's Orangemen have been parading in the towns and villages of Northern Ireland this month to confirm their loyalty to Protestantism and to show resistence to any form of unification with the Republic of Ireland. Tensions have been heightened this year by a government and police ban on Protestant marches that touch upon areas with majority Roman Catholic popu- lations.
The Orangemen are so-called because they follow the tradition of the 17th century William of Orange who, as King William III secured the Protestant royal succession to the English throne.
There was an increase in tension on June 28 when the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) prevented an Orange march from passing through the mostly Catholic village of Castlewellan. Fierce rioting by loyalists led to clashes with the security forces in which 22 policemen were injured.
Loyalists claimed their right to march anywhere in ``British'' Northern Ireland. The police stated that individual parades had to be viewed against the general good of all the population.
The same basic issues have been at stake in Portadown, which has a minority Catholic population. There were disturbances last Sunday when police clashed with unification demonstrators after Orangemen marched through a Catholic area of the town.
The controversy is likely to continue during the summer months when nearly all such marches take place. Marching and the carrying of the union jack, the British flag, has a territorial significance. Those who support continued union with Britain are showing visible signs of this support in the face of Catholics who largely favor a united Ireland.
Unification fears among Protestants are particularly acute this year. In the May local government elections, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) -- the Provisional Sinn Fein -- won seats on a large number of local councils.
The Protestants fear a unification sellout despite repeated assurances from London that this is will not happen.
Douglas Hurd, British secretary of state, echoes the mystification of a large number of Britons who fail to understand how Ulster ``loyalists'' can confront the forces of law and order, thus making their fight against Irish republican terrorism even more difficult.
``Northern Ireland won't make sense unless and until the two communities can live side by side in peace -- and that's nothing to do with Dublin,'' Mr. Hurd said.