Parades lead Orange Order into cul-de-sac

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THE SUMMER Orange marching season is once again threatening to cause major disruption not only to ordinary life on the streets but also to the efforts to create new political processes in Northern Ireland.

Many aspects of life have improved in Northern Ireland in recent years, with a dramatic decrease in violence and the greatly-increased hope that political progress can be made. But a resolution of the recurring marching controversies has so far eluded everyone.

Most of the almost 3,000 annual loyalist marches pass off without incident, but since 1995 the annual Drumcree march has led to a huge increase in tension and to major disturbances. The 1996 march led to disorder on a scale which caused many to question the intrinsic stability of Northern Ireland.

New arrangements have been put in place since then, with the establishment of the Parades Commission which yesterday announced that this year's parade would be re-routed away from the Catholic Garvaghy Road area. There is not, however, widespread confidence that this new institution will make the difference between a peaceful summer and a deeply troubled one.

The Orange Order, which is clearly not disposed to accept the ruling, appears to be planning widespread protests. The problem for the authorities is that the Order has upwards of 50,000 members and could stage protests on a scale which might overwhelm the capacity of the security forces to police them.

If trouble breaks out at one location word spreads quickly and so, often, does the trouble itself. What began as a basic problem of marshalling a parade can thus quickly escalate into something which can threaten public order and normal life throughout Northern Ireland.

The Orange Order includes a great many law-abiding people, but its Portadown district lodge and its supporters place its ability to walk along the Garvaghy Road above almost all other considerations. The nationalist residents there seem determined to prevent any march taking place, and in this they now have the support of the Parades Commission.

The question now is whether the Order goes ahead with province-wide protests and whether the security forces, led by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, feel they can cope with these. Although it is the Parades Commission which makes decisions, an override power has been given to RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan who, as the march nears, can give a countermanding instruction on public order grounds.

Last year Mr Flanagan initially seemed minded to re-route the march but in the event he decided to push it through, apparently concluding that re-routing would spark off a potentially unmanageable wave of protests not just from the Order but from violent loyalist paramilitary elements. This year the Order and its supporters will once again seek to bring about a last-minute change of heart.

This year the public order concerns are overlaid by wider political considerations centring on the new Belfast assembly. Although last week's elections delivered what appears to be a workable majority for the new institution, they also starkly revealed the depths of division within Unionism.

Drumcree is in Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble's Upper Bann constituency and the issue played a large part in advancing his career. The assembly election showed that only a narrow majority of Unionists support him in endorsing the new agreement.

The new element in the equation is the argument that the authorities should not be making his life more difficult than it already is, and that his future and that of the agreement would be better served by once again allowing the march through.