THE Protestant ``marching season,'' which is often a flashpoint in Northern Ireland, reached its climax peacefully this past week, providing limited hope for various overtures toward a political settlement. At the same time, Tom King, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said he was willing to stay at his post for a fourth year, longer than any of his seven predecessors, who stayed for three years or less. Mr. King said he would like to stay because ``there is a chance of making some progress.''
The marching season runs from Easter to the end of August, but July 12 is the climax. The ``Twelfth'' marches celebrate the 1690 victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over the Roman Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne. This victory is still seen by Northern Ireland's pro-British loyalists as a reassurance that the province's 1 million Protestants will not be forced by Britain or the Irish government in Dublin into an all-Ireland republic.
The Orangemen stepped out with determination this past week as usual, even though many believe that the Anglo-Irish accord of 1985 was the first step toward the political unification of the island. The accord increased cooperation on border security and gave the Dublin government a limited advisory role in Northern Ireland's government, in return for the Irish Republic's official recognition of the Northern state.
Despite three years of bitter opposition to the accord in their ``Ulster says No'' campaign, some loyalist leaders are trying a new approach, partly because the workings of the accord are to be reviewed in November.
James Molyneaux, leader of Northern Ireland's Official Unionists, told Orangemen at Lisburn July 12 that ``there need be no loss of face in seeking that firmer ground on which to build an enduring structure to accommodate all reasonable people within the British Isles.'' He also renewed his call for a ``new, wider British-Irish agreement,'' to replace the 1985 accord.
One continued obstruction to talks between unionists and Constitutional Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland is the ongoing series of meetings between John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party - which represents the majority of Ulster's half-million Catholics - and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the outlawed Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Despite growing public outrage over continued IRA killings and maimings - including this past week's IRA-claimed attack on British troops in West Ger-many - Mr. Hume defended the talks. He said they were one of the most significant and positive developments in the ``troubles'' that have wracked the province for the past 19 years.
Northern Irish secretary King obviously takes the possibility of political progress seriously, and during the past three years he has earned the grudging respect of both sides for his patience and diplomacy.
Against this complex political background, the Orangemen car-ried on their Twelfth celebrations with music, pageant, and color. It was not all serious political showmanship, and many bands took on an air of Mardi-gras gaiety, playing tunes like ``The Hokey Pokey,'' as well as traditional Orange marches.
Many of the thousands of spectators wore Union Jack caps emblazoned with the message ``Ulster says No.'' But in view of the political maneuvering taking place over their heads, the message could well have read ``Ulster says Maybe.''