Marchers turn heat on Ulster agreement

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THE political status of Sinn Fein dominated Northern Ireland exchanges yesterday, with calls for decommissioning, allegations of republican involvement in weekend rioting, and continuing controversy over invitations to Sinn Fein leaders to a royal garden party.

The most immediately ominous issue, following Saturday's disturbances at the Garvaghy Road troublespot in Portadown, Co Armagh, is that of the loyalist marching season, which is worrying many in government and the security forces.

The season's chief predicament continues to be that which has dominated Northern Ireland's summers for the past three years: whether to allow Portadown Orangemen to walk along Garvaghy Road, or to halt the parade in line with the wishes of Catholic residents.

Fifteen policemen and four civilians were injured during Saturday's disturbances, when more than 30 petrol bombs were thrown, together with a number of blast bombs. There were allegations that the use of blast bombs was an indication that republicans were involved, since such devices require prior manufacture.

Alistair Graham, chairman of the Parades Commission, defended its decision not to ban the march. He said: "We decided this was not a parade we needed to intervene in. We are talking about 40 children and one band. It hardly touched the Garvaghy Road. It was mainly in a non-contentious area."

The weekend violence and its implications was discussed by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, in Dublin last night. Both spoke optimistically of forging a closer cooperative relationship between Dublin and London in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, symbolised by the planned invitation to Mr Blair to become the first British head of government to address the Dail.

The meeting, part of a series of contacts between Mr Blair and European Union counterparts in his capacity as President of the EU Council of Ministers, also discussed the need to strengthen EU efforts to combat drugs trafficking and organised crime, and the crisis in Kosovo. They also considered the prospects for EU enlargement and transitional arrangements for structural fund aid to Ireland during that process.