Police in Northern Ireland are firmly resolved to keep Protestants from marching through Roman Catholic areas of Portadown at the height of the so-called marching season this weekend. Tension is high, because ``unionists,'' nearly all of whom are Protestant and favor continued ties with Britain, believe that the police are being strongly influenced by the Republic of Ireland's desire to protect Catholics in Northern Ireland from possible violence because of the march.
The police deny this and claim that their actions are being taken in the interest of law and order. There is the chance that last minute developments could lead to rerouting or outright banning of some of the most potentially conflictive marches.
This year's marching season is the first since the signing in November of the Anglo-Irish agreement, which gives the predominantly Catholic Irish Republic a consultative role in the operation of British-ruled Northern Ireland. It does not, however, provide specific instructions for security operations.
Protestants, who outnumber Catholics 2 to 1 in the province, see the agreement as the first step toward a unified Irish state. Many are convinced that the police tactics are part of an overall plan to curb Protestant liberties, which, according to unionists, should include the right to march through Catholic areas.
The events of last Sunday in the town of Portadown, 25 miles south of Belfast, do not bode well for a peaceful compromise.
The police decided to allow a parade of unionists to proceed through Portadown's ``tunnel,'' a railway underpass leading to a Catholic area. But scuffling broke out between unionists and police, as Catholic residents jeered the marchers.
Tens of thousands of Protestants are expected to take part in marches all over Northern Ireland on Saturday, July 12. They will be commemorating the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when Protestant King William III defeated Catholic King James II, establishing ``the Protestant Succession'' -- an understanding that future English monarchs would be Protestants.
The vast majority of the marches are likely to take place peacefully, but the town of Portadown has become a flashpoint for potential trouble.
In recent months, the unionist community has suffered many perceived setbacks. On June 10, the British government closed the Northern Ireland assembly, used by unionists as a platform for anti-agreement propaganda. Despite an eight-month campaign against the agreement, neither the British nor the Irish government has budged an inch.
The accepted wisdom in government circles, in London and Dublin, is that the frustration expressed during the marches will have to expend itself before Protestant politicians are prepared to negotiate.
The recent referendum on whether to legalize divorce in the Irish Republic, which was rejected, is seen by unionists as evidence that the Republic is not a pluralistic society that would accommodate Protestant views. The referendum vote could be used by unionists as a propaganda weapon and as a tool to attack agreement.
Much depends now on the way unionists behave on the streets in coming days and weeks. Continued violence and confrontation with police will continue to erode support for the Protestants' cause in London, where they still have to argue a convincing case for a better alternative to the Anglo-Irish agreement.