A FATEFUL week lies ahead for Northern Ireland writes David McKittrick, with the biggest Orange parades of the marching season taking place tomorrow and an attempt on Thursday to form a historic new cross-community government.

The authorities are hoping that a relatively trouble-free 12th of July celebration of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 will help to pave the way for the Ulster Unionists to accept Tony Blair's devolution and decommissioning package on Thursday.

But neither an incident-free 12th nor a decommissioning breakthrough is guaranteed, though the Government will take heart from an Irish Times opinion poll which indicated that 60 per cent of Ulster Unionist party supporters approve of the Blair plan.

This figure suggests that the Protestant grass-roots are more disposed towards the plan than are party activists. The Unionist party executive, meeting in Belfast on Friday, reiterated its standard demand for an immediate start to IRA arms decommissioning rather than the 30-day wait proposed by Mr Blair.

The poll findings were attacked by Ulster Unionist Deputy Leader John Taylor, who described them as "the greatest lot of nonsense". He added: "I find these opinion polls are crazy things. I don't pay much attention to them."

Acceptance of the Blair plan is deemed by the party to amount to a change in policy, which means that the executive would have to give its approval.

The executive is to meet again on Wednesday night to review the situation in the light of the legislative safeguards which the Government is to put forward in the next few days. Party sources said the issue of acceptance of the proposals would largely depend on the strength of the fail-safe guarantees put forward for the legislation.

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Parades Commission has approved of a new route put forward by the Orange Order for tomorrow's main Belfast procession, which attracts around 20,000 Orangemen and supporters. The Commission had originally turned down a proposal for the demonstration to be held in a park next to a small Catholic housing pocket at Ormeau in south Belfast.

Under the new proposal, the rally will take place at a different part of the same park, with Orangemen reaching it via a different and less contentious route. Nationalist representatives were critical of the decision, while unionists and loyalists welcomed the move. An Orange Order spokesman said that the Parades Commission "at last seems to have seen a bit of sense and been realistic for once."