Nationalists will not look the other way; Orangemen will not re-route the march. So we talk about an 'Ulster Armageddon'
On A Rainy morning two decades after Professor E O Wilson got a jug of water dumped over his head for suggesting the social behaviour of human beings was to some extent governed by genes, Mrs Joan Smith of Portadown took me into her back yard to display the missiles her neighbours had thrown at her recently.

There was a Tennants lager bottle and shards of several others that had broken on impact. More bottles and beer cans lay on the roof, along with dozens of fist-sized stones. These were the shatter-proof windows the council had recently put in, she explained. It had also erected a 15ft fence three weeks ago to shield her from the war-like tribe on the far side of the park. This was the border now.

Mrs Smith has never heard of Professor Wilson but she would not contest his speculative conclusion: "Our species is hard-wired to co-operate with our own kind and show hostility towards 'the others'." Whatever you think of sociobiology, that is possibly the only explanation for life on Whitten Close, 50 yards off the route of the Orange Order parade that threatens to plunge Ulster into a tribalistic dog-fight this morning.

As I write, hard-line loyalists are threatening to tear the province apart if the march is banned, while hard-line nationalists natter about uncontrollable rioting if the Orangemen's right to march is enforced at gunpoint. Either way, trouble seems inevitable, with the security forces of Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State, likely to be consumed by violence whatever she decides.

As for Mrs Smith, she is beyond caring; she has been living in a virtual war-zone for almost a year. Aged 74, she moved into her house eight years ago, at a time when Whitten Close and surrounding streets were entirely Protestant, and the nearest Catholics were about 500 yards up the Garvaghy Road. Like most Northern Irish, Mrs Smith has local memories of "lovely neighbours" who got along well until the troubles took a turn for the worst in the Eighties. Protestants began to leave the area, some pushed out by marching seasons and petrol-bombers. After last summer's Drumcree fiasco, the last Protestant pulled out from the far side of the park, and Mrs Smith and her neighbours found themselves on the front line.

"I was watering my flowers one day when a crowd started shouting 'Orange bastards, we'll break your windows and burn you out.' These were young fellows of 18 to 20." How often was there trouble? "Och, every day. They sit on that wee rise in the park and put their fingers up and shout 'F- this' and 'B-that'. And we are all senior citizens in this row. There is nothing we can do to defend ourselves."

Worse is to come, by the look of things. Convoys of Saracens were moving into Portadown, police setting up check-points and machine-gun emplacements. Talks were under way, but appeared to be floundering on the rocks of sociobiological imperatives. Everybody was "praying for peace" and calling for compromise, but nobody was willing to do the necessary. Meanwhile, the nationalists appeared to be winning the war of perception, judging by the bar-room reaction to Ms Mowlam's appearance on TV on Friday evening. The grand masters of the Orange Order were showing flexibility, she said, but their followers in Portadown were being difficult. The chap next to me snorted into his beer: "It's we who must show flexibility? Fuck you, madam." He went on to detail the concessions the Orangemen had offered already. "They said it was triumphalism they didn't like, so we said we will march in silence. They said we would turn it into a political circus so we said fine, it shall only be us locals - no Paisley, no Trimble, no politicians. And now they want us to back down completely." Such a humiliation would be too much to bear, he said, especially with the whole world watching.

Later, I stopped a man on the street and asked for directions. He smiled and offered to guide me, "Don't ask me what's going on," he said. "I've been here all my life and I still have no idea. I'll tell you one thing, though. There's black and there's white but there is a great huge blank area in this town. I'd say 80 per cent of us don't want trouble."

He was a Catholic, it turned out, but that was the general consensus - a vast majority holding their breath and wishing it would all go away, while a minority on either side plotted violence, and the middle class ran away. Every flight out of Belfast was booked, reported the Portadown Times under the headline "Last minute scramble for foreign holidays". Those who stayed were said to be barricading themselves in their homes with enough groceries to survive a siege.

Mrs Evelyn White on the other hand, was camping out on a grassy knoll alongside the Garvaghy Road parade route. A mother of nine and a staunch nationalist, Mrs White is treasurer of the Garvaghy Coalition orchestrating resistance to the march. She and a band of young nationalist mothers had been holding a 24-hour vigil since mid-week, regaling visiting journalists with cups of tea and their side of the story.

In Portadown Catholics live in fear, they said. Just a month ago, a young Catholic lad was kicked to death by loyalist thugs on the High Street. "They hate us," said a women named Eileen, whose beleaguered house was visible in the middle distance. "All terror and intimidation comes from the other side, we are the victims of our enemy's evil."

As for the Orange march, the women sentries were having none of it. "None of them live here," they said, "Nobody along this road wants them. They can march around their own part of town, but they will never walk over us again." Look at what happened last year, says Evelyn White - a taxi driver shot dead by loyalist vigilantes and a lad crushed under the wheels of a Saracen when security moved in to open the road. That's why they are here today. "It's an insult and a provocation," says a woman named Sheila. "It terrifies our children and leads to violence."

True enough, but last year's violence was triggered at least in part by the nationalists' determination to stop the parade. It would be so easy for them just to shrug and look the other way for 15 minutes while a band of old men in bowler hats walk through their estate. By the same token, it would be easy for the Orangemen to save the day with a gracious gesture - re-route the march or call it off entirely.

"Very few gestures are left to me," said Joel Patton, a leader of the hard-line Orange faction known as the Spirit of Drumcree. "You're talking to a man who has had his business attacked and his home petrol-bombed." We were standing in his County Tyrone garden, feeding chickens and assessing the prospects for an "Ulster Armageddon". Mr Patton thought it unlikely. The most probable outcome, he thought, was that Mo Mowlam would choose "the least worst option", and order the forces to clear a path for the marchers much as it did last year - by driving a phlanx of armoured Land Rovers and Saracens down Garvaghy Road, battering demonstrators aside. Protests would reach a crescendo as the forces moved in, he predicted, with Sinn Feiners pushing children and pensioners into the front lines so that they could be clubbed down in front of the TV cameras, providing Irish-Americans with Bloody Sunday-style images.

So why not call off the march and deny Sinn Fein a propaganda victory? "You don't understand," said Mr Patton. "Our parades are all we have left. In the past 10 years, Protestants have vanished from large areas of the west and the borders. Nationalists control two-thirds of the geographic areas and both the major cities. Protestants are corralled in the south and north-east. We are being ethnically cleansed and no one wants to know."

Mr Patton was reluctant to discuss the furious wrangling apparently under way inside the Orange Order, but he was openly contemptuous about senior leaders contemplating compromise. "They are living in another century, tugging their forelocks, and trying to stay in with the British, but the British don't want to know."

In these circumstances, Mr Patton argued, it was pointless to try to preserve the Union. "You can't have a union when only one party is interested. The British can't wait to get rid of us. We should be asking another question entirely: how do we preserve a distinct race of people who have the right to self-determination and survival."

The message was clear: the Grand Masters of the Orange Order could go to bed with Mo Mowlam and her pan-nationalist fellow travellers, but they should not expect Portadown's hard-liners to follow blindly.

As a I write, helicopters circle in the sky above, and there is the distant throb of heavy engines as armoured vehicles head towards the battlefield. Somewhere up there men of discerning tribal persuasions are balancing the primaeval dictates of blood and genes against the rival voice of reason. The fate of Portadown and possibly all of Northern Ireland depends on the outcome.