Restraint in tense N.Ireland

Appeals for peace, and a steel barrier, met Orange Order marchers yesterday.

There was tension in the air, but by press time, concerns of fresh violence had failed to materialize at Drumcree, Northern Ireland.

"Please, please keep this peaceful," Harold Gracie, leader of the Portadown Orange Order, urged as marchers gathered near a 20-foot steel and razor-wire barrier yesterday afternoon.

The British military and local authorities made a concerted effort to prevent some 2,000 staunchly pro-British Orange Order Protestants from bringing their annual Portadown march, commemorating the World War I battle of the Somme, into Catholic parts of Drumcree.

While the march has more than 80 years of history, its return through Garvaghy Road, a largely Catholic neighborhood, has been a flashpoint for past sectarian unrest. Since 1998, the route has been banned by Northern Ireland's Parades Commission.

Many Catholic residents see annual Protestant marches - which reach a climax July 12 - as provocative.

This year, tension is especially high because of the July 1 resignation of David Trimble as head of Northern Ireland's Protestant-Catholic coalition government, and there is widespread fear that the three-year-old peace process is in danger of collapse.

Alastair Graham, ex-chairman of the Parades Commission, had stated pre-viously that "The capacity of the conflict to generate violent shockwaves across Northern Ireland is a matter of historical record." Even David Jones, the spokesman for the Portadown Orange Lodge, admitted the danger of the march being "hijacked" by those seeking to bring down the government.

But a joint operation by the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the Northern Ireland police force, had sought to make it impossible for Orange marchers to cross Drumcree Bridge and enter Garvaghy Road. Six-hundred paratroopers had been deployed since early Saturday, with a further 1,600 troops held in reserve. The bridge itself was blocked with concrete-filled steel containers, while other access points were cordoned off with razor wire.

The Orange Order, a once-dominant fraternal order in Northern Ireland, dates back to 1795, though similar marches are an older tradition. The group protests that its rights of assembly and religious worship are being denied. In a statement about the Portadown march, its governing body, the Grand Lodge, argued: "The way to improve community relations cannot be achieved through a repression of a legitimate expression of a culture."

Orange parades, of which there are some 3,400 each summer, are indeed about celebrating the history of Protestant Ulster communities, with ranks of flute, brass, accordion, and pipe bands that practice year-round. In a procession as visual as it is musical, marchers doff black bowler hats, don ceremonial sashes, and carry aloft meticulously painted and woven banners that portray historical and biblical events.

The problem is that Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics both define their culture in terms of opposition to the other religion. The most popular historical event for Orange banners is the bloody victory of King William of Orange (after whom the Order is named) over a Catholic army at the Battle of the Boyne. Their slogan is "No surrender."

Another marching instrument is the Lambeg Drum. "When you hear that drum, you don't feel it is being banged by men with goodwill in their hearts," says Pauline Flood, a Catholic who moved from Derry to London.

The current chairman of the Parades Commission, respected English jurist Tony Holland, calls for dialogue between the Orangemen and those residents who do not welcome their marches. Breandan MacCionnath, spokesman for the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition, says "our position has always been that what is needed is a local dialogue."

But for the past year, the Orange Order refused to meet with the Residents Association, claiming the group is a front for the terrorist Irish Republican Army.

An Orange offer on Friday morning to meet Mr. MacCionnath and his team after the march was rejected as too late, though it was backed by the caretaker leader of Northern Ireland's government, Sir Reg Impey.

Apart from their immediate threat to the peace process, the Orange marches demonstrate the mistrust drawn from centuries of sectarian conflict. Those searching for peace have a difficult balancing act to perform.

Today and tomorrow at the stately home of Weston Park, in rural England's Shropshire, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, will be ensconced with the leaders of the three Northern Irish political parties supporting its coalition government. Their tasks include finding a new leader for the government amid Protestant party demands for IRA disarmament, reform of the RUC, and further British Army withdrawals.

Despite the relative calm of Drumcree, this summer's marching season, especially celebrations marking the Battle of the Boyne July 12, will keep the politicians' tightrope walk a precarious one.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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