Tension rises over Belfast Orange march

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THE NORTHERN IRELAND Parades Commission acted yesterday to ban a proposed new parade that would have brought 20,000 Orangemen and supporters to the edge of a Catholic area whose representatives had branded the march "insane".

The Orange Order in Belfast wanted to divert the city's main 12 July celebration from its traditional rural destination to the edge of the lower Ormeau area, the scene of many marching controversies.

Gerard Rice, of the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community Group, applauded the Parades Commission's decision. "I've absolutely no doubt that violence may have been averted by this decision," he said. Last night, however, it was not immediately known whether the Orange Order would respect the ruling from the commission, which it refuses to recognise.

Ballynafeith's Orange district grand master, Noel Liggett, described the Parades Commission's decision as "quite unbelievable", saying: "I couldn't tell you what will happen here on this road on 12 July. It's an impossible situation where anything could happen."

There is much apprehension in the air concerning Monday's main 12th of July parade. There is much uncertainty, too, over next Thursday's meeting of the Belfast assembly, when it will become known whether the Ulster Unionist Party will go along with the devolution and decommissioning deal urged upon it so strongly by the British and Irish governments.

Some Orange leaders believe they have found a sympathetic ear in Downing Street and Tony Blair will eventually fix it for them to march down the Garvaghy Road, in Portadown, from where they have been banned since last July.

The Orangemen have little time for Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and their faith in Mr Blair is thought to have been a big factor in the order's decision to scale down sharply their Drumcree protest and to take steps to avert violent clashes with the security forces.

In the peace process, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the Ulster Unionist Party called on the IRA to spell out a commitment on the decommissioning of weapons.

Mr Ahern said a clear statement could be "the clincher." "I believe Sinn Fein are doing everything they can, but to make the process work we need to hear from the IRA," he said."

Mr Ahern's comments also opened up a serious split between the London and Dublin Governments over whether Sinn Fein and the IRA were part of the same organisation.

Mr Ahern's stance that he now accepted the IRA and Sinn Fein were separate, which could allow Sinn Fein to stay in a power-sharing executive if the IRA fail to disarm, infuriated Unionists. But Number Ten said: "They are two sides of the same coin" and Mr Blair added that they were "inextricably linked."

Speaking on BBC's Question Time last night, Mr Blair also appeared to confirm that Mo Mowlam would be moved from the Northern Ireland Office in the forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle for a "rest" after the peace process.

Praising her contribution to Northern Ireland, Mr Blair went further than before in signalling that her term as Northern Ireland Secretary would be over within the month. "Mo has done a fantastic job in Northern Ireland. I spent last week there and I needed a bit of a rest afterwards. She has had two years of it, so I know exactly what she has been through." he said