N. Ireland's Clash of Identities

A standoff between Orangemen and British forces peaks July 12. One issue: a fear of cultural loss.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

"We rule. Get back into your ghetto," shouts a defiant Protestant youth, pushed aside by British police in riot gear.

His words, aimed at Catholics living on Garvaghy Road in this bitterly divided town, reflect a new desperation by many Northern Ireland Protestants. Many fear the new peace-driven political order - which gives more power to Catholics and could lead to a united Ireland - will deny their cultural identity, such as language.

Those fears are represented by the Orange Order, a Christian organization open only to Protestants. Its standoff against massive British forces at Portadown's Protestant church, known as Drumcree, is expected to peak on July 12. That date marks the 1690 defeat of the Catholic King, James I, by the forces of William of Orange, which brought a Protestant to the English throne.

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The Orangemen see the April peace deal as forcing the Irish language and a Catholic way of life on them. "People feel there is nothing left open to them," says Orange spokesman Davy Jones.

And they see the British denial of their march as a way to show Catholic "nationalists" that Britain is serious about the Northern Ireland peace pact.

"We are not prepared to give in," says Mr. Jones. "We seem to be completely ignored and completely denied."

Significantly, he condemns the part of the peace deal that he says guarantees Irish language rights, but fails to mention Orange culture.

Drumcree has become a focus for the discontent of Northern Ireland's pro-British loyalists. The Orange Order, a fundamentalist Christian organization, was born just a few miles from Portadown following a battle between the ancient enemies.

Only a narrow majority of Protestants supported the April peace agreement, while the rest see the deal as bringing a loss of historic privileges and power, symbolized by the blocking of traditional parade routes.

These Protestants fear that Northern Ireland will eventually be forced into an Irish republic, which they see as Catholic dominated, and end a British way of life. The use of British forces to stop the march is particularly upsetting to anti-peace-deal Protestants.

The Catholics who now live along Garvaghy Road object to the historic march. They view the Orangemen with their British flags as offensive.

The standoff reflects how the peace deal has not yet sunk in among the people of Northern Ireland.

Many loyalists view the deal as a betrayal - an attempt by the British government to buy a permanent cease-fire for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) after 30 years of brutal violence. Almost all Catholics, who are becoming increasingly confident, support the deal.

The agreement creates institutional links with the Irish republic, guarantees powersharing, and promises to end the union with Great Britain if a majority wish it.

That prospect appears to be a greater reality given the birth rate of the Catholic population. Their political representatives now control district councils in Northern Ireland's two main cities.

In 1974 loyalists defeated attempts at power-sharing, but now they are divided over the current deal. In 1974, the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, had no prospect for power; now the party is going to be in government with two ministers in the power-sharing executive.

Orangemen point to the leader of the Garvaghy Road residents coalition, Breandan MacCionnaith, who served six years in an IRA prison wing for firearms offenses. They view calls for dialogue as an attempt to humiliate Orangemen, as if they have to ask permission of the IRA to walk the "Queen's highway."

Nationalists, who seek to unite with Ireland, insist dialogue merely shows mutual respect. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern, and even President Clinton have stepped in to urge accommodation, but there is little sign of compromise.

Pressure has been put on the residents to give in and allow a parade for the sake of the new peace agreement, but to no avail.

Says one resident spokesman: "Under no circumstances will they accept any Orange feet on the Garvaghy Road this year," he said. "They had all year to talk. They want us to just curl up and die. Have we no rights, no feelings?"

As supporters of the Orange Order vent their fury with rioting, bus burnings, intimidation and attacks on police, Orange leaders know they risk losing the sympathy of their fellow British citizens.

Already businesspeople have complained that the violence has jeopardized millions of pounds in foreign investment and tourism. One Protestant woman, surveying the burning buses in her own district, complained bitterly about the hooligan element who see the standoff as an invitation to lawbreaking.

"The IRA never did this - what our own people are doing to us," she says.

Loyalists in favor of the agreement, meanwhile, seem more isolated than ever. Their leader, David Trimble, the new first minister of the newly elected Northern Ireland Assembly, who once stood shoulder to shoulder with the Orangemen at previous stand-offs, seems a distant figure as he works with his new Catholic deputy first minister.

Mr. Trimble has only a slim majority behind him in the Assembly, and his ability to pass measures required by the agreement may be at risk if Protestant violence continues.

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