Tensions rise as Orange march plea snubbed

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Senior Orangemen in Portadown have rejected calls to re-route tomorrow's march away from a nationalist area as the province braces itself for a weekend of tension and potential violence.

Orange sources in the town poured scorn on an appeal by Orange Grandmaster Robert Saulters not to parade along the predominantly nationalist Garvaghy Road. One said: "To say we are antagonistic to that view is an understatement."

Later Mr Saulters, who has no formal say in the decision on marching, changed direction by conceding that the "no parade" option would be unacceptable following remarks earlier in the week by the Irish premier, Bertie Ahern, in which he opposed forcing the parade through.

Mo Mowlam, Secretary, of State for Northern Ireland, last night appealed to Portadown Orangemen to listen to the "voices of reason". Speaking at Stormont Castle, she said: "I recognise the tensions in both communities are increasing and people in both communities are in need of reassurance.

"Let me say very clearly that no decision has yet been taken, we are continuing our efforts to find an accommodation that both communities can live with. For the good of everyone and for the sake of peace in the next few weeks I urge those in the Portadown Orange Order to listen to those voices of reason."

A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office, meanwhile, insisted that the Secretary of State had not given up hope of a settlement. Yesterday morning, she met leaders of the Orange Order from County Armagh, and was thought to be in contact with representatives from the Garvaghy Road.

On Thursday evening, she held lengthy talks on security contingency plans with the Royal Ulster Constabulary Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan, and Lt-Gen Sir Rupert Smith, head of the Army in the province.

If, as many expect, the last-minute attempts to find an accommodation fail, then Ms Mowlam and Mr Flanagan will today announce their decision on whether to ban the contentious part of the annual parade. Late last night, there was a growing feeling among nationalists that Ms Mowlam could well respond to pressure from the Irish government to ban the parade. This would keep Dublin on board in any future peace talks and avoid a repetition of the disastrous scenes of last year when Orangemen brought the province to a standstill during a five-day stand-off at Drumcree.

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