Irish Peace Talks: Heartland waits to be convinced

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The Independent Online
THERE will be no peace in Northern Ireland without Portadown. This fiercely proud heartland of loyalism has to be convinced that the agreement being hammered out at Stormont has something to offer them, and is not just a sell-out of Protestant interests camouflaged in rhetoric.

Portadown has come to symbolise what is seen as loyalist intransigence and sectarianism. This is the hometown of Billy Wright, leader of the loyalist Volunteer Force murdered in the Maze, which does not recognise and is not taking part in the Mitchell negotiations.

Drumcree is just two miles away and preparations are already under way for the annual Orange Parade on the Garvachy Road, with all its potential for confrontation and conflict.

But many of this city's Protestants, who make up 73 per cent of the population, maintain that it is they who are discriminated against and are the real victims of the Troubles.

The Loyalist housing estates of Portadown mourn the martyrdom of Wright. Slogans on the walls over neatly painted kerbstones in red, blue and white declare "Not talking but walking - Drumcree", "LVF, the true defenders", and the old battle cry of "No Surrender".

At the Edgartown housing estate, where Wright used to drink at the Golden Hind, a man wearing gold chains and sporting an armful of tattoos said: "If [David] Trimble and his kind sell out Ulster, people will know there is nothing left to lose, there will be war."

The man added: "There is plenty of everything around from talking to people, guns, plastics, no problem."

The LVF was born out of the mid-Ulster unit of the Ulster Volunteer Force when the parent body expelled it after a bitter dispute over a pre-Drumcree march. Following Wright's killing it went on a murder spree of Republicans and Catholics.

"We support them," said Margaret, a housewife. "They're the only ones who are prepared to look after us. Billy Wright was a good man, he did a lot for the community."

Billy Wright's grandfather was elected an alderman in Portadown. He stood as an Independent. Billy grew up with Catholics, and even in his days as a paramilitary commander claimed that he was not sectarian. What would happen if a Catholic walked in here? After knowing smiles one said: "He wouldn't be walking out of here." What about after a peace settlement? "He wouldn't be walking out of here."

Gangs of Protestant and Catholic youths have been involved in skirmishes in the city's high street. Unionist and SDLP councillors in Craigavon Borough Council have asked for increased policing. Allan Wilson, 36, a Protestant self-employed businessman, said: "We never had this before. Hardly a sign of progress is it? I doubt if the peace deal is going to work, it seems to me that one side is getting everything and the other nothing. The Protestant people are losing out."

The Catholic minority in the city is guardedly optimistic about the future. A woman from a Catholic estate said: "Both sides have got to make compromises. It is silly to say that all Catholics support Sinn Fein or the IRA. But we certainly do not like to see all the troubles that come with the Orange marches. That's the trouble with this country, there are too many memories and not enough looking forward."