Leading Article: Forget rights: there will be no marching without compromise

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The Independent Culture
NORTHERN IRELAND'S First Minister David Trimble yesterday expressed well-founded fears that the peace process had reached an impasse. Tony Blair's meeting with Garvachy Road residents highlights those fears: that the British Prime Minister still has to arbitrate between the Province's rival traditions demonstrates how far genuine reconciliation is from becoming reality.

Nationalist residents of the road object to Loyalists marching along their traditional route each July: Loyalists insist that they have every right to march the Queen's highway. On the surface, their differences are irreconcilable, and there is nothing to look forward to but another summer of violence and confrontation in Portadown.

Northern Ireland has made so much progress towards peace that the prospect of failing altogether comes as a nasty shock. That is, nevertheless, the prospect the Province faces so long as the political process is stalled, and its Assembly has still to vote to set up a power-sharing executive that could take power from Westminster.

Sinn Fein and the Unionist parties are engaged in dangerous brinkmanship on arms decomissioning, which Unionists insist must be underway before they will share a Cabinet with Republicans. The March deadline for "Devolution Day", on which local politicians would take over many of the Northern Ireland Office's functions, looks precarious. This stalemate fosters uncertainty, in which any single incident may fatally undermine the whole process.

Decomissioning has become a necessary condition for the Northern Ireland Executive's existence: otherwise Mr Trimble would find Unionist support for the Good Friday Agreement evaporating. Republicans must give him a reciprocal sign that they are serious; even making a start, as the Loyalist Volunteer Force did last year when it handed in guns and ammunition, would be better than nothing.

If a viable administration is not in place come the heightened emotions of the marching season, then failure to agree on Drumcree will assume added significance. It could be the moment that convinces paramilitaries that there is nothing further to be gained through negotiation, and gives them the excuse to renew terrorist activities.

But if a solution can be reached at Drumcree, politicians may take renewed heart in negotiations. To get that far, the Portadown Orangemen will have to reconsider their determination not to talk to Garvachy Road residents, or even take part in proximity talks. They themselves have already offered some voluntary concessions, for example on the size of the march: to reach agreement, the residents' coalition would have to agree that it can take place at all. Both sides are presented with the danger of renewed conflict, but also with a precious opportunity to show what compromise can achieve. We must hope they choose the latter course.

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