Northern Ireland's Protestants and Catholics appear further apart than ever. Their mood is again one of angry confrontation as the peace process appears to be in further peril.
The long-standing rift between the province's religious communities greatly widened following a decision yesterday by the British government to let a controversial Protestant march go ahead.
The march went through a Catholic-dominated community at the village of Drumcree in the town of Portadown south of the capital, Belfast. Police shoved hundreds of Catholic protesters out of the way to make way for the marchers.
The decision, said by a senior government source to have required a policy reversal at "the highest political level" in London, ended a five-day street protest by Protestants against police.
Brendan MacKenna, leader of Drumcree's Catholic community, said the granting of permission to allow the march by about 1,300 members of the 100,000-strong Protestant Orange Order was "a further setback" for the already-faltering peace process. He said Catholics in the area had not been consulted.
But David Trimble, leader of the official Ulster Unionist Party, called the London government's policy switch, taken on the eve of an important anniversary date in the Protestant calendar, "a victory for reason and common sense."
Passions whipped up by the confrontation at Drumcree have deepened bitterness on both sides of the province's religious divide, putting peace talks in jeopardy.
Since the 1994 cease-fire, supporters of the moderate nationalist cause have been urging reconciliation between Unionists and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. But moderates deplored the decision by Hugh Annesley, Northern Ireland's chief constable, to let the march go ahead.
Today is the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when the Protestant King William of Orange, defeated the invading Catholic claimant to the English throne, James II.
It is a passionately cherished date for Protestants who for 200 years or more have taken to the streets and marched to mark the occasion.
Kevin McNamara, a Labour member of the British Parliament and his party's former spokesman on Northern Ireland, said Mr. Annesley "had given in to blackmail and threats of violence."
Annesley said, however, he had "no choice" but to "break the impasse." A day earlier his senior officers insisted that the march would be prevented.
A source in the mainly Roman Catholic Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) said one result of the march was likely to be a refusal by the SDLP to attend future sessions of the all-party peace talks in Belfast. SDLP leader John Hume said Annesley's decision was "disgraceful."
Earlier this week, as Drumcree became a flash point for province- wide Protestant protests, the main Unionist parties boycotted the talks, saying they would not return to the table until the standoff was resolved in their favor.
Less than 24 hours before the Orangemen, clad in full lodge regalia, were finally allowed to march down Drumcree's Gavarghy Road to the sound of a beating drum, Prime Minister John Major, in a House of Commons statement, appeared to back the police in their opposition to the march.
But London's policy reversal came after a fourth night of violence across Northern Ireland and amid warnings by Protestant militants that if Mr. Major did not change his mind, worse troubles would ensue. When violence erupted last weekend, many Catholic houses and business premises were burned and cars were set on fire. Police described it as the worst violence in the province in more than a quarter century.
In the face of a huge buildup of Protestant demonstrations at the police blockade at Drumcree, the London government flew an extra 1,000 British soldiers to the area. Major held crisis talks late Wednesday night with Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland secretary.
Twelve hours after the extra troops arrived, soldiers in full riot gear appeared at Drumcree and began removing razor wire and concrete barriers that had prevented the Orangemen's march, letting them through.
Police then fired plastic bullets at Catholics attempting to halt the march.
When at last the parade went ahead, residents on the nearby Catholic housing estate pelted police and troops with homemade petrol bombs, rocks and bottles.