Raw power of streets beats the politicians

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One of the few things which loyalists and nationalists agreed on yesterday was that the siege of Drumcree was yet another issue that had been decided not on the force of argument but on the argument of force. The implications are ominous.

No one was in any doubt that the Royal Ulster Constabulary's confrontation of the Orangemen had been determined not on the merits of the issue but because the scale of loyalist protest had reached a dangerously destabilising point.

The fact that the episode ended not through negotiation but in a perceived victory of one side, the Orange Order, over two other elements, nationalist opinion and the will of the authorities, will not increase faith in negotiation.

On the nationalist side, the episode will be added to what former US Senator George Mitchell memorably described as "the vast inventories of historical recrimination".

One of the foundations for the peace process, which led to the IRA's August 1994 ceasefire was an increased republican emphasis on negotiation. When the IRA broke the ceasefire earlier this year it claimed it did so principally because the Government had shown an unwillingness to open meaningful negotiations with Sinn Fein.

Although the ceasefire is over, many nationalists, including Sinn Fein supporters, have continued to subscribe to the idea that the best way ahead is through negotiation. But other republicans, including those who ended the ceasefire, will now point to Drumcree in support of their argument that force gets results.

On the Unionist side, what Portadown loyalists regard as a triumph may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. Yesterday's events may provide a morale- booster to a community that has had little enough to celebrate over the past quarter-century, but to some Unionist politicians it will be a salutory reminder of the power of Unionism's strength of numbers.

On the other hand, this week's often violent images of Orangemen and other loyalists in conflict with the civil authorities will tend to undermine the efforts of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble to present a more modern image of his cause to the world. Those loyalist hardliners who are suspicious of political accom- modation will advocate simply standing firm. And many in both communities are dismayed that Northern Ireland once again has been portrayed as a place that can be suddenly de-stabilised.

Drumcree also revealed thelimits of policing. Northern Ireland's population of a million and a half is policed by more than 30,000 security operatives, including police officers, regular troops and locally-recruited soldiers and others. The RUC is highly trained, able to cope with all kinds of violence, yet the scale of the loyalist protests put the force at full stretch, and the chief constable was forced to push the march through in the face of escalating violence.

One of the world's most experienced police forces was thus impelled to reverse a carefully-considered strategic decision. The fact that it had to do so means that the issue of parades remains unresolved and will pose continuing problems, this year and in the future.

The episode also inflicted serious damage on an already fragile economy. The republican and loyalist ceasefires had brought the hope of new investment and new jobs, especially in tourism, but this week tourists have fled, or cancelled in large numbers.

For the moment the marching season has lived up to its reputation as a madness which drives already divided communities further from settlement.