Confrontation as marching season begins

Loyalists in stand-off with police at road-block to prevent Orange parade entering Catholic district. David McKittrick reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Thousands of police and Orangemen found themselves locked in impasse last night in the Co Armagh countryside after an Orange march was prevented from parading through a Catholic district.

With tension mounting, the scene at Drumcree, just outside Portadown, looked set for a re-run of last year's stand-off at the same spot. On that occasion, the RUC and Orangemen remained in confrontation for three days before a compromise was reached.

In one brief skirmish during the afternoon, several stones were thrown and a number of punches aimed at police. But otherwise the situation, though uneasy, was largely peaceful.

Unionist politicians, including Unionist leader David Trimble and the Rev Ian Paisley, who were at the scene, said they were determined that the march should go ahead along its traditional route through the Catholic Garvaghy Road district. Local Orange leader Harold Gracey said they would remain at Drumcree "for as long as it takes". He told the crowd: "Dublin has given orders for this. We will not be giving in to Dick Spring, John Bruton, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness or any other spokesman for Jesuit priests."

There were reports that Orangemen from other parts of Northern Ireland were being summoned, and that plans had been made for marches and protests in other areas.

During the day, Mr Trimble and Mr Paisley spoke to senior police officers at the scene. Mr Trimble warned that Sir Hugh Annesley , the Chief Constable of the RUC, was "foolish" in gambling with the peace in Northern Ireland. He said a lengthy stand-off at Drumcree could shatter the tranquillity of past months, leading to a breach of the loyalist ceasefire or being used by the IRA as an excuse to resume their campaign in Ulster.

During the morning, a thousand Orangemen had marched from Portadown to a service at Drumcree parish church by an uncontentious rural route. On Saturday, however, the RUC had announced that because of the possibility of disorder they would not be allowed to march back via Garvaghy Road.

In a symbolic protest after attending the service the Orangemen marched to within a few inches of a line of police officers who stood in front of a dozen Land-Rovers which had been drawn up to block the narrow country road. They then turned and marched back to the church leaving several dozen Orangemen face to face with the RUC.

The scene was surrounded by a huge security presence with dozens of Land- Rovers parked in the vicinity and British troops in the background.

Police erected a fence of razor-wire, topped with a white warning ribbon, across fields to prevent any attempts by protesters to outflank RUC lines.

Orangemen in around a dozen parts of Northern Ireland later staged short- lived protests in support of the Drumcree marchers, in a number of instances blocking roads. Police said most of the protests took the form of holding up traffic after attending evening church services. In Newtownards, Co Down, two roads were blocked for several hours.

A symbol of Protestant sympathies

The Order was founded in 1795 following a major sectarian affray in County Armagh, known as "the Battle of the Diamond", and symbolises the Protestant king William III - William of Orange - who defeated the Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, since when, the Order has been the symbol of Protestant sympathies in Northern Ireland.

For more than a century, the Order has functioned as a pan-Protestant front, helping to unify various strands within Unionism. Its leaders deny any suggestion that it is anti-Catholic, but the movement has been consistently anti-ecumenical and opposed to religious integration.

While its regulations tell members to abstain from uncharitable actions against Catholics, they are pledged to "resist the ascendancy of that church" by lawful means.

During the half-century of Unionist rule in Northern Ireland, from the 1920s, most Unionist ministers and MPs were members of the Order, which is considered a powerful body in the Province. Its members still wear the traditional bowler hats and orange sashes, and carry rolled umbrellas during marches.