Children in front line of Ulster's summer of hate

Ros Wynne-Jones on the dangers of 'Drumcree 3'
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Children were centre stage in Northern Ireland's troubles last week as seven-year-old Louie Johnston grieved for his murdered father, an RUC constable, in one of the most harrowing images to come out of the province since the end of the IRA ceasefire.

In two weeks' time, they will be centre stage again as the residents of Portadown's Catholic area, the Garvaghy Road, hold a residents-only street party, complete with bouncy castle for children, in the path of a Protestant Orange Parade setting out from the church at Drumcree.

The party is the latest gambit in the looming clash between the two communities at Drumcree in Co Armagh, where for the past two years the irresistible force of the Orangemen's desire to march down the highway has met the immovable objection of their republican neighbours living along it, with violent results.

On 6 July the attention of the world's media will again be on the Garvaghy Road, where last year the RUC first prevented and then allowed the march, at a cost of riots and bitterness between the two communities.

This will be the first test of Mo Mowlam's career as Northern Ireland secretary, a dilemma left by the Conservative administration which last year set up an independent review body to ensure the problem never recurred, then failed to implement its recommendations.

If the march is re-routed, there are those in the Orange Order intent on pushing it through the Garvaghy Road anyway, and she will stand accused of denying Protestants - already worried about Labour's intentions in the province - the right to march. If it goes ahead on its 200-year- old route, the Garvaghy Road residents will almost certainly try to stop it, and Ms Mowlam will stand accused of violating the rights of the 95 per cent Catholic area, whose residents see it as offensive and provocative, and who already feel ghettoised in Portadown.

Tension is rising. In the wake of the IRA murders of PC Johnston and another policeman at neighbouring Lurgan last Monday and sectarian attacks against Catholics in Portadown in recent weeks, this year the talk locally is already of "Drumcree 3".

Drumcree's 1856 church, where there has been a place of worship since the 13th century - when Christians were of one faith - stands peacefully overlooking one of the most beautiful countrysides in Northern Ireland. The Orange Order was founded in the neighbouring parish of Diamond, and Portadown became known as "the Orange Citadel". But the shifting demographics of the town have left it stranded on the edge of a Catholic ghetto, where the Garvaghy Road flies the Irish tricolour and the blue flags with silver stars of the IRA.

The rector of the parish, the Rev John Pickering is resigned to his place in history in charge of the most contentious church in Northern Ireland. "It was inevitable that the pot would boil over sometime somewhere and, of all the parishes in the province the pot has happened to boil over in mine," he said.

"I hold a statutory service every Sunday at 11.30am, and anyone, visitors or parishioners, is welcome to attend. On the first Sunday in July the service is traditionally attended by Orangemen. What they do when they leave my church is up to them, although in 1995 and 1996 I took on a pastoral role appealing for calm. This year I am praying for peace - for the whole community."

Less than half a mile away, down the Garvaghy Road, Brendean MacCionnaith is sitting in the home of a Jesuit priest, Father Eamon Stack.

"For years the Catholic community in Portadown has put up with triumphialist and intimidatory parades," he says. "In 1995, different groups which had previously held little separate protests banded together to make one peaceful protest because we had had enough.

"We are a ghetto in the Protestant area of North Armagh and we have to endure 40 to 50 parades every year, not just this one. There is hardly a week without a sectarian attack on a Catholic in this town. We do not want to see any violence this year - Garvaghy residents have condemned the Lurgan shootings and so have I. But the Orangemen will not even talk with us."

The Orange Order has said that even to talk about not marching or of a re-routeing at Drumcree is an insult to the Protestant community which it will not tolerate. Local leaders add that they will not deal with Mr MacCionnaith - a convicted IRA terrorist - or with the Garvaghy Road Residents' Association, which they maintain is a front for Sinn Fein, a charge strongly denied by residents.

Joel Patton, leader of the hard-line Orange faction, Spirit of Drumcree, says: "Portadown is the citadel of Orangeism. If we can't march there, where can we march?"

Mr Patton talks of "ethnic cleansing", of how his culture and tradition are being stamped out, of the approaching "Ulster Armageddon". Drumcree, to him, is a fight for freedom. He can, he says, see no resolution to the situation.

His words recall those last year of Ian Paisley, the leader of the DUP, who described Drumcree as a matter of "life or death ... a matter of freedom or slavery ... if we don't win this battle, all is lost."

That so little progress at Drumcree has been made in the past 12 months may well be due to the intransigent nature of the wider conflict in Northern Ireland. But it may also be due to the Conservative government's refusal to legislate on the North recommendations, because of its reliance on the Ulster Unionists in government.

Sir Peter North, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, had recommended that an independent Parades Commission be created, taking the power to decide on the routes of marches from the RUC chief constable. But the Government instead opted to create a commission with merely an advisory role.

Ms Mowlam, whose Government has no need of Unionist votes, has said that legislation this autumn will enact the North Report in full; but for Portadown this year that will be too late.

Last week in neighbouring Lurgan, as nuns queued beside loyalists and nationalists beside Protestant clergy to sign the condolence books for murdered constables Johnston and Graham, people were already talking of how to get their children, their nephews and nieces, out of Portadown before 6 July.

Adrian McKinney, a member of the local peace movement, wrung his hands. "In 25 years of being involved in the peace movement I have never felt so afraid of anything as I feel about Drumcree this year," he said.

"We in the movement feel it could have the power to spark a civil war."

By the end of last week, the RUC had been flooded with hundreds of requests for Orange parades throughout Northern Ireland between 6 and 12 July. Within hours, requests for counter-parades by nationalists were coming in.

"For any Orangeman who saw that child's face on Wednesday," said a member of the loyalist community, "there can be no going back at Drumcree."