Parade standoff in N. Ireland slows healing of old wounds Catholics block route of Protestant march


PORTADOWN, Northern Ireland -- Once again, Northern Ireland is shrouded in fear because of a parade. For the third year running, the British province is being brought to a standstill by the standoff at Drumcree Church.

To Alan Milligan, this might be the last stand of the Protestant Orange Order. If Orangemen can't march along a disputed route, he believes, then their way of life, and their culture, will eventually be destroyed.

"All we're asking for is nine minutes of tolerance," he says.

To Donna O'Hara, a Roman Catholic housewife, it's time for the Orangemen to find a new path that avoids her neighborhood.

"Can they not get the message, it's a rape of our community?" she says.

On Sunday, thousands of Orangemen attempted to follow a centuries-old route from church to town in a march of faith and a show of strength. The march was blocked as thousands of armed soldiers and police officers enforced the edict of a London-appointed parades commission, which ruled the march should be rerouted away from a Catholic neighborhood.

Instead of following the new route or dispersing, the marchers stopped and set up camp, hemmed in by soldiers, razor wire, a trench and the ever-present military helicopters.

And so, the test of wills began.

To outsiders, a dispute over a parade would seem preposterous. Yet it symbolizes the deep religious divisions that remain in a society trying to cultivate a fragile peace that was brokered in April by the British and Irish governments. Majority Protestants and minority Catholics are trying to heal wounds of a nearly 30-year terrorist war that left more than 3,200 people dead. For the first time in a generation, their political leaders are seated in a local assembly.

Yet old grievances threaten the progress -- old grievances and parades.

This is marching season, with 3,000 parades held throughout the province. The season continues with next Monday's parades that mark the victory of William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The vast majority of the parades are uncontested. A handful are controversial. And the new parades commission was designed to provide an independent voice to say which could go on as planned and which would have to be rerouted or canceled. Monday's main ones have been allowed.

Then there is Drumcree. This is the heartland of the Orange Order, a religious and social group of about 30,000 to 70,000 people founded nearby in 1795. The first Orange Order parade from Portadown to Drumcree Church along the Garvaghy Road was held in 1807.

As Catholics moved into the area over the past few decades, the march became contentious. The first protests against the parade were held in 1985.

Ten years later, residents stood down the bowler-hatted, orange-sashed marchers for three days before allowing the parade through. Violent confrontations were held in 1996 and 1997, with the marchers eventually passing through after the residents were forced off the road by the police.

The politics of Drumcree are volatile. This area is represented in Britain's House of Commons by David Trimble. In 1995, he led the Orangemen to "victory" and then danced a jig. His exploits helped launch him to the leadership of the province's main party, the Ulster Unionists.

But Trimble now also leads the new local assembly as Northern Ireland's first minister and is being forced to take a conciliatory line. Yet he is walking a tightrope. He has to keep the Ulster Unionist Party together, while trying to carry out the power-sharing agreement with Catholic politicians. Most Orangemen bitterly oppose the peace deal and many observers say that this opposition is fueling the latest standoff.

Hunkered down in tents on a hillside are hundreds of Orangemen, who vow to follow their tradition and march from the church to the center of Portadown via the Garvaghy Road to celebrate their culture and their history.

"We don't want to see any violence. We should be allowed to walk the Queen's highway," says Milligan, 42, a third-generation Orangeman who is taking off work as a driving instructor to head the food detail at the Drumcree camp.

But on the other side of a 25-foot-high steel barrier braced with four concrete blocks and topped by razor wire are the mainly Catholic residents along the Garvaghy Road.

They remain adamant that the parade should not pass, claiming that Protestants use it as a march of triumph. The residents also show their colors, flying the Irish flag from lampposts, while a large sign dominates the street: "No Talk. No Walk."

"The people are sick and tired of this," says O'Hara, 38. "We're not afraid."

While the standoff lasts, Northern Ireland burns.

The Drumcree front is under control, but in working-class Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast and elsewhere since Sunday, violence has flared during the evenings, with street gangs tossing Molotov cocktails, hijacking cars and attacking security forces. The level of violence has not yet matched that of a 1996 standoff, when the airport and ferry docks were shut and the province was brought to a virtual standstill.

After five days, London gave in and allowed the rioting marchers to proceed. The residents then rioted.

Britain says the same thing won't happen this year. It is stepping up security, with 800 more soldiers due to be dispatched to Northern Ireland, supplementing the 17,000 stationed in the province. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is due to meet with the Orange Order's leadership tomorrow.

The two sides are not talking, yet they remain hopeful that the stalemate will end. Each side is bidding for victory.

"We have to try and get a resolution," says George Patton, the Orange Order's executive officer. "But you can't talk compromise. There is nothing left to give. We don't believe civil rights can be negotiated. What you have is the imposition of cultural apartheid. We're told that because we're Protestant, we can't walk into certain areas."

The Orangemen refuse to negotiate with the leader of the residents, Breandan MacCionnaith, who was jailed in the 1980s on firearms offenses, hijacking, and the false imprisonment of a family.

"The Orange Order is trying to demonize me," MacCionnaith says. He says he is seeking a negotiated end to the standoff.

Francie Molloy, of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, says the march should have been "sorted out long ago."

"It's brinkmanship every year," Molloy says. "I do accept marching is a culture of the Orange Order, but it is also tromping over the rights of other cultures."

Trimble is working to broker a deal, saying, "We cannot afford for BTC the situation to continue indefinitely." He appealed for the end to "mindless violence" against innocent people and said: "Orangemen must realize that if this violence continues, it will only be a matter of time before we are once again following coffins."

But on the front lines of Drumcree, they are prepared for a long siege. The tents are up, the Union flags are flying. Someone has even brought along a Christmas tree.

"We're like General Custer," says Thomas Black, 33, sitting in the sun in front of his tent. "We'll go down fighting."

Pub Date: 7/08/98

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad