Drumcree gets ready for battle

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Senior Orangemen in Portadown have rejected calls to re-route Sunday's march away from a nationalist area as the province braces itself for a weekend of tension and potential violence.

Orange sources in the town poured scorn on an appeal by Orange Grandmaster Robert Saulters not to parade along the predominantly nationalist Garvaghy Road. One said: "To say we are antagonistic to that view is an understatement."

Later Mr Saulters, who has no formal say in the decision on marching, changed direction by conceding the "no parade" option would be unacceptable following remarks earlier in the week by new Irish premier Bertie Ahern in which he opposed forcing the parade through.

Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, last night appealed to Portadown Orangemen to listen to the "voices of reason". Speaking at Stormont Castle, she said: "I recognise the tensions in both communities are increasing and people in both communities are in need of reassurance.

"Let me say very clearly that no decision has yet been taken, we are continuing our efforts to find an accommodation that both communities can live with. For the good of everyone and for the sake of peace in the next few weeks I urge those in the Portadown Orange Order to listen to those voices of reason."

A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office meanwhile insisted that the Secretary of State had not given up hope of a settlement. Yesterday morning she met leaders of the Orange Order from County Armagh, and was thought to be in contact with representatives from the Garvaghy Road.

On Thursday evening, she held lengthy talks on security contingency plans with Royal Ulster Constabulary Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan and Lt Gen Sir Rupert Smith, head of the Army in the province .

If, as many expect, the last-minute attempts to find an accommodation fail, then Ms Mowlam and Mr Flanagan will today announce their decision on whether the ban the contentious part of the annual parade. The signs are that the march will be allowed through under heavy police and army protection in an attempt to avoid the disastrous scenes of last year when Orangemen brought the province to a standstill during a five-day stand- off at Drumcree. Some Orangemen believe, however, that Ms Mowlam may ban the parade following the intervention of the Irish government.

Pressure on the Northern Ireland Secretary increased yesterday when Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble urged her to respect the right of free assembly and movement on the highway. He said: "Government should not ban peaceful citizens from exercising these rights in a non-provocative manner at the behest of those who threaten violence."

In an attempt to reduce tensions, Orangemen have offered to scale down the event by playing no music along the disputed route, reducing the number of Union flags to one and keeping out politicians. Local nationalists, however, oppose the parade in any form and despite appeals yesterday from churchmen for compromise for both sides, the gap between them seemed as wide as ever.

Nationalist residents in Garvaghy Road have already drawn up plans to try and block the parade if it is given the go-ahead.

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