Tragedy Divides Unionists

Calls for calm prevail in N. Ireland after last week's killing of three young Catholic boys.

The field at Drumcree is all but deserted now.

A handful of determined Orangemen and a smattering of cars scattered around the muddy expanse are all that's left of the nearly 20,000 Protestants who attempted to hold their traditional parade down the Garvaghy Road nearly two weeks ago.

The small footbridge that connects the field to the road is still barricaded by police, a testament to the British government's decision to stop the marchers from passing through a Catholic area.

But it is not the police presence that has caused deep divisions among those who want to keep intact the political union with Britain.

Instead, it is the killing of three young brothers last week, after a gasoline bomb was tossed through the window of their home in Ballymoney.

"[The protesters] should have had the decency and honor to stop the protest after the children were killed. It's unbelievable they are still there," says a Protestant shopkeeper in west Belfast.

Other unionists are less certain of the meaning of the tragedy. A soul-searching debate appears to be opening up in unionism, which is being torn by tensions over the April 10 peace agreement that sets up a new assembly with members from both communities.

"I think the [Protestant] hard-liners have been discredited because the logic of their position was taken to its conclusion with the deaths of the children," says a community worker who has been involved in trying to resolve the parades dispute. "That will have had a very salutary effect on unionism."

He says a majority of unionists have moved on from the days of ambivalence or outright support for force to defend their position.

The Rev. Brian Kennaway, an Orange Order chaplain, agrees, saying that "wiser heads" will now prevail against those loyalists who seek confrontation at all costs. "We need to adopt a more positive attitude and not continually be negative," he says.

Mr. Kennaway says unionists must make the best of the April peace agreement - or face isolation.

But some Protestants are angry that, in their eyes, the Orangemen have been made a scapegoat.

Rumors began to appear almost immediately that perhaps unionists were not to blame. Some claimed that the bomber who turned the home of Chrissie Quinn into a deadly inferno while her sons Richard, Mark, and Jason slept July 12 was not a sectarian killer.

It was a family member who murdered the Quinns, said one. Another claimed that it was a "sinister" plot between police and loyalists to discredit Orangemen. Others said it was a row over drugs.

The statements were made publicly by Orangemen or their supporters as they moved to distance the Orange Order from the horror of the deaths of the children.

In response, the police and a government minister issued a formal rebuttal.

A loyalist politician, Ray Elder, also denied the validity of the rumors, insisting the attack was carried out by "thugs masquerading as loyalists."

Protestants and Catholics lined up all week to sign a book of condolences in Ballymoney - and an appeal fund has been launched for the family.

But the rumors continue. A middle-aged Protestant woman who did not give her name and lives in Antrim, another predominantly Protestant town 20 miles from the murder scene, claims the "truth" will come out.

"I've got it from a very good source," she declared. "This is being used to hurt the Orangemen. Once the truth comes out, it will all be different."

She did not say what "the truth" is.

Most Protestants, however, seem appalled at the rumors.

Sydney Elliott, a political science lecturer from Queen's University in Belfast, says he believes the recent violence has pushed unionists toward compromise.

"Up until last weekend, that percentage of pro-agreement unionists was being diminished by the day - before the deaths in Ballymoney. I don't know, this maybe brought people back."

A nationalist politician, Declan O'Loan, who lives a few miles outside Ballymoney, also says he believes good can come from the tragedy.

"Drumcree has been a watershed," Mr. O'Loan says. "Orangeism ... made an attempt to force the issue, but law and order prevailed.

"I think now is a time for reflection. The extreme forces of unionism have been shown not to succeed, and mainstream unionism has distanced itself from them. It is just a terrible shame that three children had to die to prove that point."

The killings came after a week of sometimes violent protest by supporters of the Orange Order, a fundamentalist Protestant organization.

Thousands of Orangemen had refused to leave a field at Drumcree church in Portadown, until the British government reversed a new law prohibiting them from marching into a Catholic neighborhood.

The Orangemen had walked the route since 1807, but it now runs through a housing development occupied mostly by Catholics.

Despite appeals for peaceful protest from leaders of the Orange Order, the standoff was accompanied by rioting, gasoline bombings of Catholic homes, attacks on the security forces, and illegal roadblocks.

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