To the surprise of the gathered media, a section of the seemingly impenetrable barrier parted and a single policeman - mindful of the death of another officer in Portadown last autumn - stepped out into the sunshine and folded his arms.
The event, the first sign yesterday that this year's Drumcree stand-off might pass peacefully, had a medieval quality about it. Behind the officer, watched by a row of riot police, another policeman in black helmet, balaclava, fatigues and body armour stood like a latterday knight. Before him, marching down the Drumcree Road, nine Orangemen came, led by a standard-bearer and two bowler-hatted figures carrying swords.
This is as near to violence as the organisers of this year's Drumcree parade hope it gets. In an astonishing turnaround from the aggression of last year's stand-off, when many Royal Ulster Constabulary officers were injured, Portadown Orange Lodge held a low-key protest and ordered their followers to do the same.
Thousands of Orangemen from all over the province had marched peacefully to Drumcree parish church in Co Armagh to commemorate the Battle of the Somme. An hour earlier, the Protestant Long March, led by victims of the Troubles, had completed a 120-mile journey from Londonderry and placed 14 roses against the barricade.
Both gatherings had been seen as potential magnets for militant Unionists bent on confrontation. But the Orangemen were determined that peace should prevail.
At the end of the service, which was relayed by loudspeaker to thousands gathered outside, Harold Gracey, the Portadown lodge district master, demanded calm and dignity. Mr Gracey has lived in a caravan at Drumcree as a protest since last year but if there were to be violence, he said, he would leave.
"Apart from two weeks last year, we have managed to keep this thing peaceful and I say to anyone intent on violence, `You are not welcome'," he said. "The Orange Order does not want you." Turning to the 1,200 Orangemen from the region, he said: "Every one of you is a marshal. If you see someone coming in with drink, take it off them and tell them to go back where they came from." Orangemen were choosing yesterday, the United States' Independence Day, to show that their liberties, their freedom to march, had been taken away, he said.
Minutes later, the Order told the thousands gathered to move away from the police fortifications, the barricade, water cannon, barbed wire and ditches, so their six most senior officers could make a protest.
They approached the lone policeman, sub-divisional commander Superintendent Mervyn Waddell, and the Orange Order district secretary, Nigel Dawson, asked to pass. Supt Waddell said he could not permit that, so the Orangemen asked that the Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the Prime Minister, Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and the security minister in her department, Adam Ingram, should be asked for an explanation, to be delivered to them by 6pm. They turned and walked away and the officer retreated behind the barricade.
Around them, their supporters appeared bewildered. Many applauded the prospect of a peaceful stand-off but a few voiced their disapproval. "Is this part of the dirty deal?" shouted one, expressing the opposition of those gathered to Friday's peace declaration.
Last year, police and soldiers faced a barrage of missiles, including pipe bombs and fireworks, for almost two weeks. It remains to be seen whether this year's event will pass off peacefully. On Saturday night, a large crowd gathered, baying at police and firing rockets.
RUC officers will be particularly pleased if the event passes without incident. They have received intelligence that extremists have acquired illegal Chinese rocket fireworks that have been packed with 2lb of explosives and 6in nails.
The prospects for a peaceful protest have been enhanced by suggestions that, secretly, the Orangemen have been promised the right to march along the Garvaghy Road within weeks if they behave. There are unconfirmed reports of talks and possible deals between Tony Blair and both sides, although officially there is no movement on the Parades Commission's order to declare the Garvaghy Road off limits.
Unionists believe that they could still march without causing confrontation. According to their research, there are about 900 houses along the 600m stretch of road denied them. They say only 66 of those face on to the Garvaghy and Drumcree roads, while fewer than 10 have addresses actually on the Garvaghy Road. The vast majority - 75 per cent - are 100-600m away from the road.
It takes about seven minutes to walk the route. Orangemen have appealed to Catholic residents to stay indoors if they feel offended, although the appeals have been indirect - they refuse to speak face to face with people from the Garvaghy Road. The Catholics, in turn, say they should have the right not to have triumphalist Protestant parades through their areas.
Last week, the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force printed leaflets in Belfast ordering Protestants not to riot, burn or destroy property during this difficult period. That, coupled with yesterday's definitive appeal for calm from the Orange Order, may be enough to prevent violence. In the meantime, the people of Northern Ireland are holding their breath.
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