Northern Ireland is trying to move peacefully into the future, but this month history is holding it back.
Yesterday, thousands of members of the Orange Order sporting black bowler hats and colorful silk sashes gathered at the tiny hillside church in Drumcree. The strongly pro-British Protestant group was determined to uphold a two-century-old tradition of marching down Garvaghy Road, a mainly Catholic neighborhood in nearby Portadown, after the Sunday service.
To prevent the parade, hundreds of riot police and British Army troops stood behind barricades and razor wire - prepared since last week when violent protesters attacked police and brought nearby Belfast, Northern Ireland's main city, to a standstill.
Adding to tensions, a car bomb went off early yesterday in front of a police station in Stewartstown, County Tyrone, a Catholic area about 15 miles from Drumcree, where the blast was reportedly audible. No one was hurt and there was no immediate claim of responsibility. Northern Ireland Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan blamed the Real IRA, a dissident offshoot of the Irish Republican Army.
Even before the bomb, political analysts were saying the protests, held during the annual Protestant "marching season," had taken a sinister turn this year. Previously uninvolved members of a pro-British paramilitary group, the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), are supporting the Orange Order protests.
Security experts fear extremists on both sides of the sectarian divide will use any means to weaken the power-sharing political system put in place as part of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
Jesuit priest Michael Bingham lives among the 5,000 Catholic families on Garvaghy Road and runs cross-community projects with Protestant residents.
"We see the situation here as not under control," he says. "The Orange Order has not condemned the violence linked with these protests. It's different from last year. The Parades Commission [the cross-party body that authorizes marches] this year clearly spelled out what has to happen if there is a march. There must be dialogue with residents." Many Catholics object to the parades as triumphalist, aimed at creating an image of Protestant dominance.
The Orangemen refused to participate in talks, however, because the residents' spokesman was convicted in a bombing linked to the IRA.
The Drumcree parade protest, traditionally held on the Sunday before July 12, has stirred sectarian strife on a massive scale. In both 1996 and 1998, unrest resulted in a number of deaths, including those of children. So far this year, there have been several dozen injuries and widespread destruction of homes and cars.
A last-minute appeal to the Parades Commission failed to lift its three-year ban on the march.
A protest has been called today to galvanize support for the march to eventually go through in a run-up to the July 12 holiday, when the marching season culminates. Known as the Glorious 12th, it marks the date in 1609 when the Protestant King William of Orange defeated Catholic King James in the Battle of the Boyne.
An Orange Order supporter at Drumcree hill said this week, "This is our Alamo."
Still, despite the violence, this year's tensions are not the threat to the peace process they were in the mid 1990s."[Drumcree] does not have the capacity to bring down the peace accord on its own," says Paul Bew, professor of Irish politics at Queen's University in Belfast. But, he says, "the poison that flows out of it" does have the potential, along with other currently contentious issues, to destabilize it.
Even more important to the peace process, says Brendan O'Leary, professor of politics at the London School of Economics, is a bill outlining the name and composition of the new police force in Northern Ireland making its way through the legislative system here. The measure is expected to move a step closer to Parliament tomorrow.
"In my view, stability of the peace process is more critically dependent on what happens to the policing bill than Drumcree," he says.
In Belfast, people not involved in either the Orange Order or residents groups opposed to the marches often ask, "Why not let the marchers through? It only takes a few minutes."
In an opinion column in London's Guardian newspaper last week, Professor Bew wrote that the Orange Order, a major institution in the Protestant community, "is in crisis." He says that although important, the group "is no longer a hegemonic force within unionism."
He and others paint a picture of an Orange Order that has recently become essentially leaderless, acting outside what moderate members of the pro-British, or unionist, community feel is necessary or comfortable. He says the participation in the protests of UFF leaders like Johnny Adair, released from prison under the peace accord, "freaks them out completely." It's considered ironic that the Orange Order, which denounces terrorism, would accept the help of a known terrorist like Mr. Adair.
Fr. Bingham says, "People have more confidence this year with the Parades Commission, and they are mesmerized by what the Orange Order reaction is. It's certainly without a clear objective. They're in a corner."
He adds, "The test will be if there's any leadership from the Orange Order capable of reading the signs of change and taking that route courageously."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society