Orangemen hold the line over marching

The Northern Ireland peace process is facing its latest trial of strength. Ian MacKinnon reports from Portadown
A narrow twisting road in the Northern Ireland countryside was last night fast becoming the scene for the latest test of the increasingly fraught peace process as swelling ranks of Orangemen maintained their stand-off with police over their right to march along a route.

Nationalist community leaders portrayed the tense confrontation on the outskirts of Portadown, Co Armagh, as a trial of strength between the authorities and the Loyalists with the outcome having a direct bearing on the path to peace.

But as leaders of the Orange Order held talks with senior police in an effort to find a compromise that might allow some of them to walk along the nationalist Garvaghy Road, loyalists accused the Government of appeasing republicans by preventing the march.

However, Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said the decision was purely an operational one taken by the Royal Ulster Constabulary seeking to uphold the rule of law, and he refused to intervene in the dispute, confident that a solution would be found.

All day yesterday hundreds of Orangemen, many in their distinctive sashes and a few in bowler hats, gathered outside Drumcree parish church to face the lines of RUC officers in riot gear at the point where they had been stopped from marching on Sunday morning.

Police had banned the procession of nearly 1,000 loyalists and Orangemen as they left the service and began their 15-minute walk back into the centre of the predominantly Protestant town of Portadown.

As the transient population of Orangemen came and went in shifts, all were adamant that they would maintain their protest until they got their way. Most were incensed that the route walked by their fathers and grandfathers for 188 years had been blocked by police who they said were merely doing the bidding of nationalists on the Churchill Park estate. "This is plainly a political decision," said Benny Partridge. "It is to appease the republicans. We are determined to stand here until we get satisfaction."

The mood was calm, and with a large gathering planned Jeffrey Donaldson, the Orange Order's assistant grand master, appealed for restraint from those at the head of the picket.

"There are those who want to see Orangemen in confrontation with the police. So let us, as we have done so far, act with restraint and dignity. What's happening here is a test for the Orange institution: whether we are prepared to stand for our civil and religious liberties, or whether we are going to let others take them from us."

But David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist MP for Upper Bann, maintained that the police had decided to prevent the march because a significant number of IRA men and Sinn Fein supporters had moved into the Catholic estate and they feared the consequences. However, shoppers atChurchill Park yesterday laughed off the suggestion, but were certain that the ban on the march should remain in place as they had felt intimidated in previous years as the marchers passed.

Father Eamon Stack, a Jesuit priest and community worker on the estate, said it was unacceptable for the families who lived there to have Orangemen march through the heart of their area. "In the 1970s there was a lot of trouble," he said. Roads were barricaded "and the Orangemen marched around the outside threatening to murder everyone in it".

But the present dispute was between the Orangemen and the police. "It's a matter for them to resolve their own conflict. It's essential that they decide who controls law and order in Northern Ireland..."