Marchers trample peace hopes

Shots fired after bomb attack on police station as nationalist anger boils over in Ulster
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Security forces came under fire in three different parts of Northern Ireland last night following yesterday's huge security operation to push the controversial Drumcree Orange march through a Catholic area of Portadown.

But there were no serious injuries either in the shooting incidents or in a rash of petrol-bombings and hijackings in nationalist districts of Belfast and elsewhere.

Police returned fire at 12.30am today when a blast bomb was thrown at New Barnsley RUC station in the west of the city. No injuries were reported in the incident.

Although the security forces were kept busy with the incidents, the level of violence was towards the lower end of what had been anticipated following the controversial march decision.

Last night, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams called for an immediate end to the hijacking and burning of vehicles, declaring: "This type of behaviour is an additional and unnecessary burden on our community."

The already slender chances of an early IRA ceasefire appeared to have receded in the aftermath of a marching episode which was characterised by nationalists as a capitulation to Unionism. The Government's relations with Irish nationalists have been seriously damaged by the episode.

While the exact extent and duration of the damage may take some time to emerge, it is already clear that the episode has added a further layer of mistrust to the nationalist and republican attitude towards the Labour government.

Sinn Fein MP Martin McGuinness last night urged nationalists to make their protests heard, telling a rally in Londonderry: "Stand up for your rights. The place to be demanding justice is on the streets confronting your opponents." Londonderry will be one of the potential troublespots at next weekend's 12th of July parades, when 10,000 Orangemen are due to march in the largely nationalist city.

While in the short term, the Government has averted another Drumcree stand-off which could have pitted its entire authority against extreme loyalists, the corollary is that there may well be a price to pay in terms of the postponement of any new IRA cessation. The recently-elected Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, described it as a sad day for nationalists.

The operation mounted to escort 1,200 Portadown Orangemen along the contentious Garvaghy Road route entailed one of the largest security operations ever witnessed. More than a hundred armoured vehicles and up to 2,000 troops and police were deployed to saturate Catholic housing estates to safeguard the Orangemen's passage.

After the march, disorder broke out in a number of republican districts across the province, and dozens of people, including police officers, were reported to have suffered injuries. In one incident not far from Portadown nine men, some of them armed, seized a train and set it alight, destroying all four carriages.

More tense times lie ahead in the marching season. Apart from Londonderry, trouble could arise at Belfast's Ormeau Road, which has been the scene of many confrontations in the past.

Although Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, played a leading role in the decision-making process on the march, the final say was said to have been left with RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan. He said: "The choice I was left with was a simple, stark choice in terms of balancing two evils.

"Each evil threatened to bring about serious violence. I'm talking about loss of life. I apologise to the people of Garvaghy Road for the gross inconvenience this has caused and assure them that the level of inconvenience will be for as short a period as possible."

Ms Mowlam, in a message to nationalists, said: "Your voice is not ignored. I understand your feelings and I will address them in legislating on this issue. I am only sorry that option was not open to me this summer."

The authorities appear to have concluded that nationalist resentment would be easier to contain than loyalist anger. Although a decision was expected to be made on Saturday, no announcement was made until early yesterday, after the security operation was in place.

Troops were sent to Drumcree church, where Orangemen hold their service, with barbed wire and other equipment in what appears to have been a feint to mislead Catholic residents into believing the march would be halted. Troops and police then used on a combination of the element of surprise, the cover of darkness, and sheer force of numbers to hem the residents in. The operation remained in place from 3am until around 2pm, after the silent march of some 1,200 Orangemen had passed along the road.

In the evening, shots were fired at police on the Ormeau Road, scene of next weekend's contentious march in south Belfast, and in north Belfast. In Coalisland, Co Tyrone, a policewoman was slightly injured when a man fired a shotgun into her police vehicle. Responsibility was claimed by the East Tyrone Brigade of the IRA.

Vehicles were hijacked and disturbances broke out in the north, west and east of Belfast, and in towns including Armagh, Newry and Newtownbutler.