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March highlights loyalist divisions

The sharp divisions within Ulster loyalism were publicly encapsulated yesterday when the new marching season's first disputed parade passed off without serious incident in south Belfast.

A small parade of the Apprentice Boys of Derry marched towards the Catholic section of the Ormeau road but then, as promised, veered away from a line of Royal Ulster Constabulary Land Rovers and were taken on their way by coach.

Their conduct was applauded by police, who were relieved that the first potential flashpoint of the season had been successfully negotiated, but heckled by people accusing them of cowardice in the face of nationalist opposition.

Although only a small number of marchers and a few dissidents were involved, their comments summed up the running debate taking place in loyalist circles. One tendency believes that the right to march should take precedence over all else, while the other feels the avoidance of conflict should have priority.

Tommy Cheevers of the Apprentice Boys said they had taken their decision to give Northern Ireland a breathing space because the country could not afford a repeat of last year's clashes.

He said most of the protesters were members of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, adding: "There are always those in our society, unfortunately, who are just bigots and can't see anything. They only have small lives to live, but I have to say the majority of people realise the moves we're making here.

"We're not prepared to bring confrontation on to our own streets. We have proved we are tolerant people who are prepared to compromise. We have taken all the tension out of the air - people do not want another situation like last July."

Among the more repeatable catcalls from loyalist protesters was "Yellow bastards". Among the dissenters was Pauline Gilmore, whose boyfriend was shot dead by the IRA 16 years ago. She and the others felt the marchers should have made some gesture before turning away: "People feel disgusted, they feel betrayed, they don't understand why there is no form of protest at all."

Meanwhile, debate continued on the significance of remarks by Labour's Mo Mowlam, who at the weekend suggested that in the event of an immediate IRA ceasefire Sinn Fein could enter multi-party talks in Belfast by the summer.

Sources close to Tony Blair, the Labour leader, insisted that there was no chance of Labour sanctioning any meeting with Sinn Fein. However, Ms Mowlam's comments have created speculation that Labour in government might show more flexibility than the Conservatives.

Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis said he was worried by her remarks, while Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein said he regarded the comments as "quite encouraging".