The woman toyed with the plastic curls of her wig. "My perm went off," she said, laughing. She was very happy. It was a mixture of the events of the day and, no doubt, the drink. "We won you know. Two-nil. Last year and this. Two-nil."
It was like a football result. Politics may be all about compromise, but football isn't. She knew who had won at Portadown. Everybody did. "When we stand together, there's nobody can stop us. The governments in Downing Street and Dublin think that they can push us around, and just do what Sinn Fein want all the time, but we've shown them that we can stand up to them when we have to. We won all right."
Her friend lurched over. She was wearing a red, white and blue porkpie hat and she had a can of lager in her hand. "The way that I look at it is this," she explained. "It only takes the march in Portadown 20 minutes to pass. All that destruction for just 20 minutes, it's ridiculous. The march should never have been banned in the first place. The residents of Garvaghy Road should have just been told to stay inside for that length of time and have a wee cup of tea; they'd never have even noticed it passing."
And she and her friend went into a little dance around the flames. They had never been to Drumcree, but that didn't matter. They were bound together with their brethren in Portadown.
One Orangeman that night told me that divine intervention had been behind the Chief Constable's sudden change of mind - "that abominable mistake was corrected by the Lord himself". He tried to explain the Protestant response to the banning of the march: "It's like bending back a tree, concession after concession. You bend it back so far, then release it, there's bound to be a violent response. If they'd managed to ban that march, where would it have stopped? Would all marches have been banned next year? Would they try to take away our culture and our heritage?"
The Pope was meanwhile on the top of the bonfire, tickled by the flames. "He's a nice wee man," said an old lady almost apologetically. "He's from Poland you know" - the flames licked the papal robes - "but he's very afraid of flying" - his charred paper head blew off into the blackened sky - "otherwise why would he kiss the ground every time his plane sets itself down?"
Walk along the Shankill Road, reading the walls, looking at the faces and listening to the talk, and you get an idea of why everyone in this loyalist heartland of Belfast is so pleased about last week's events. It's the negatives you notice. "Not an inch." "No surrender." "Ulster says No." The gable walls spout out "No", "Never", "Not", "Nowhere". The Orange arch at the top of the street announces: "This we will maintain." And then there are the threats on the gables reminding you of sleeping giants - the UVF, the UDA, the UFF, and their past triumphs: "Gino. Rot in hell."
I met a man who had served time in jail as a paramilitary. After he was released, the IRA came to kill him. "They tried to kick the door in. I had the baby with me. I ran into the bedroom and locked the door."
Somehow he survived. "That was before I became born-again. But now they could shoot me dead if they wanted. I'm going to a better place. That's the way the Lord has changed me. If they'd got me then, I'd have gone to hell for eternity."
Some threats are real enough, but others are surely more doubtful. Yet like those people who can discern a pattern even in random ink blobs, some loyalists here see danger everywhere they look. Take the road itself, battered by planners far more than bombers. People think it is deliberate. "If you want to destroy Ulster, you stand with the Shankill," said one loyalist. "That makes perfect sense. The loyalist people of Ulster are going to be sold down the river." So they hang together, prizing solidarity and sharing small victories and grievances widely. "The people of this community are used to pulling together to survive and they will now. No matter what."
On the Twelfth, you could feel that strength in numbers. If you've ever sat on the Kop at a football match you'll know the feeling. The defiant drumming stirs the emotions. The bands and the Orangemen pass screens on one side of the road, the dying embers of bonfires on the other. Nobody was shouting "Two-nil" - there had been warnings against triumphalism - but one banner did say: "You'll never walk alone, Portadown."
A child had stopped me that morning on the Shankill. "Hey mister. What's always in front of you, but you can't see it?" I touched my nose and he burst out laughing. "No mister, it's the future. D'you geddit?"
Loyalists can see even less of their future than most of us.They are trying to hold on to something, a sense of who they are, a history that is without the grander British history with all its imperialist trappings, or Irish history rooted in the romance of oppression and Celtic mythology. They are neither great heroes nor great victims; they have no Trafalgar Square, no etchings of the ravaged victims of Irish famine to remind the world of who they are and what they represent. Just stern men in bowler hats marching along old lanes that have long since become streets, carrying their banners of King Billy and of the Somme, and no doubt next year of Garvaghy Road itself, to remind themselves of the battles they had to fight to survive.Reuse content