The surprise move was instantly hailed as a possibly historic breakthrough at a time when the security forces feared that significant disorder might break out in Londonderry and at lower Ormeau Road, Belfast.
The Londonderry march, which could have brought up to 20,000 Orangemen into conflict with thousands of protesting residents in the mainly Catholic town, has been switched to the nearby largely Protestant town of Limavady. The Ormeau Road march has simply been cancelled. Two other potentially divisive marches in Armagh city and Newry, Co Down, have also been re- routed.
The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland said in a statement that the decisions had been taken reluctantly "in view of the current unsettled state of the province and the great possibility of prolonged unrest endangering lives and property".
The order insisted that it reserved the right to stage marches in them at other times. The decisions appear to have been taken unilaterally, but they were made following a day of meetings involving the order, the RUC and others.
They by no means represent an agreed resolution for future marches, since no agreement has been reached between the order and the various nationalist residents groups.
Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, praised the Orangemen for their decision.
"It will be received with a great deal of relief and appreciation throughout Northern Ireland and beyond," she said.
"I recognise that this has not been an easy decision for the Orange Order to reach. I know that they have taken this step because they feel it is in the best interests of Northern Ireland and its people. I congratulate them on a decision which is both principled and which has required some moral courage. I hope and expect that others - on both sides - will show similar flexibility and generosity," she added.
Ominously, however, grassroots loyalists who gathered outside the Orange hall where senior Orangemen took the decision expressed anger at the move, attacking cameramen and television crews.
And the Rev Ian Paisley disapproved of the move, declaring: "I think this instead of being a deterrent will fuel the fire of opposition in the whole Unionist community. The IRA will say, 'Right, another great heave now and we're almost there'."
But the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, welcomed the decision. His spokesman said: "It's unfortunate this couldn't happen for the Garvaghy Road."
Essay, page 18Reuse content