Drumcree confrontation: Crisis that stripped Blair's government of its innocence

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The Independent Online
It will go down as the day the Blair government lost its innocence. Having basked for two months in the post-election contentment of a people wearied to their bones with 18 years of Tory rule, it now finds that, in one part of the United Kingdom at least, it has deeply alienated at a stroke a large section of the community.

From 9am yesterday, when the Royal Ulster Constabulary's Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan announced that the Portadown Orangemen could walk down Garvaghy Road, the Government was threatened with a dangerous draining of confidence among Northern Ireland nationalists.

This may not be permanent and it was certainly, given theimpossibility of pleasing both sides in the marching season, inevitable that one of them would feel betrayed by yesterday's agonising decision on the Drumcree march. But that doesn't make it any less painful, particularly for Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, whose boundless energy, openness and sheer likeability had been beginning to disarm potential allies on both sides of the sectarian chasm.

The reason that it took so long to reach the decision was that neither she nor Mr Flanagan gave up hope until the weekend that the local Orangemen might be persuaded to seize the moral high ground by establishing, but then waiving, their right to parade down Garvaghy Road.

This had been the course urged on them in public by Robert McCartney, the independent Unionist MP for North Down, as well as in private by at least one or two senior Orangemen. And in a context in which the Garvaghy residents' coalition was unwilling to shift its ground, this seemed the only hope.

Late on Friday night Ms Mowlam took the unusual step of travelling with Adam Ingram, one of her ministers, to an Orange hall in Lurgan to try to persuade 150 local officers of the order to take that course. By all accounts she warned them that a decision to go ahead risked playing into the hands of Sinn Fein. The next few days will tell how far her warning was correct.

Once that effort had failed, however, it was left to Mr Flanagan to decide on public order grounds which was the least dangerous course. Constitutionally Ms Mowlam could have banned the march, thus overruling the advice of both Mr Flanagan and Lieutenant Rupert Smith, the General Officer Commanding. According to government sources, the advice was not only that there was a danger of sectarian murders of Catholics by loyalist paramilitaries if the march was stopped, but also every likelihood of an increasingly uncontainable stand-off at Drumcree by Orangemen. It was just such a stand- off which caused the then RUC Chief Constable, Hugh Annesley, to reverse his decision to reroute the march last year.

In the end Ms Mowlam felt she had no choice but to act on that advice. She expressed optimism yesterday that the Parades Commission, due to be operational by next summer, will afford a fresh start to the quest for a solution to the annual marching crisis. There is much scepticism about this, though the commission will at least take into account the "third side" in Northern Ireland - those who want freedom from trouble.

In the meantime, as Ms Mowlam knows better than anyone, her most urgent task is to rebuild confidence among nationalists that democratic means offer them the best chance of lasting self-respect.