BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — Officials in Britain and Northern Ireland are breathing a sigh of relief in the wake of Sunday's decision by the Orange Order not to parade down a mainly Catholic road in Portadown, but remain wary of possible future unrest.
The standoff was only one of several planned Protestant demonstrations in the so-called "marching season" that is just getting under way.
Supporters and members of the Protestant fraternal order, often blamed for fanning sectarian hatred, marched from downtown Portadown to Drumcree Church. But the group did not confront British security forces deployed to keep them from the mainly Catholic neighborhood on Garvaghy Road.
"I've lived in Portadown all my life, and Catholics have been intimidated by the Orange Order parades," says Margaret Hughes, a Catholic grandmother living 300 yards from the massive security operation. "I think they'll get down the road so they'll back the political deal."
The hundreds of British soldiers and police manning a concrete and steel barrier were even more daunting than measures taken last year, which was the first time the Orange Order was blocked from completing its traditional route since parades began in 1807. The nonviolent atmosphere and smaller protests that prevailed at the start of this year's Drumcree standoff is proof to some that Northern Ireland's Protestant community is losing heart for the battle to retain political dominance. Other observers say it may be a bid by the Ulster Unionist party, Northern Ireland's largest, to win concessions in political negotiations.
Northern Ireland's First Minister-elect, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, is a member of the Orange Order. In the past, he was in the forefront of the protests. Now, with a Nobel Peace Prize on his resume for helping to broker last year's Good Friday peace agreement, Mr. Trimble is being criticized by the Portadown Orangemen, who say they feel sold out and isolated by political leaders.
In 1998, as many as 10,000 demonstrators arrived at the picturesque rural church to bellow their anger at their march being blocked. This year, there were some 2,000.
One was Heather Clements, who wore her Sunday best to stand in the soggy field and glare across miles of barbed wire at security forces. "It's a disgrace," she says. "Thirty years ago I was in a band and walked this route. There was no trouble. Now we're classed as second-class citizens. Police are turning their backs on us. The Protestants have never given the police a hard time."
Police disagree. Sir Ronnie Flanagan, chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, notes that one of his officers was killed last year by a bomb hurled by Orange Order supporters. He warns that he still expects violence and will maintain a strong police presence in the runup to another parade July 12, when the order marks a key Protestant victory over Catholic forces in 1690.
The independent Parades Commission ruled this year that because the Orange Order did little negotiating to resolve the situation since last year's banned march, it didn't deserve to march this year.
International media reporting the event were treated as hostile observers. An American television network team was shoved by some protesters. Orange Order member David Reynolds said, "Who gave the [Irish Republican Army] the money to buy the guns? Americans."
Across the barricade, most of the 5,000 Catholics living along Garvaghy Road remained indoors. They welcomed the world media, hoping others would understand why they insist the Orange Order be stopped from marching through their neighborhood.
One woman said, "They could march through my kitchen if they want, but they have to ask."