The bad days are back: more riots, more troops and fleeing families

Troop reinforcements were ordered to Northern Ireland last night as Unionist leaders warned the Prime Minister that Ulster had become a "powder keg" which could erupt into the worst violence since the Troubles began 25 years ago.

Two extra battalions - about 1,000 men - were preparing to leave Britain, possibly by the end of the week. There will then be 13 battalions in the province - some 18,500 soldiers - the highest number since 1982 and more than before the IRA called its ceasefire in 1994. One Unionist leader warned: "There will be bonfires across Ulster."

Late last night, however, there was a dispute between London and Belfast about when the soldiers would be sent in. An Army spokesman in the province said he hoped they would be in place by the end of the week. But the Ministry of Defence in London insisted no decisions had been made on the exact timing of the deployments. A spokesman said: "We will see how the situation develops."

The confrontation at the churchyard at Drumcree, where Orangemen and police faced each other across a barricade of concrete and barbed wire, could prove to be the beginning of a disaster, with the potential for reducing the peace process to ruins and putting the survival of John Major's government at risk.

As the tension heightened, the Prime Minister gave his total backing to the decision by Sir Hugh Annesley, the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, to halt the Orangemen's march at Drumcree.

Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists, David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, and Robert McCartney, the Independent Unionist MP, held an emergency meeting with Mr Major to press for a climb-down by the security forces.

They warned him that there could be up to 80,000 Orangemen at Portadown on Friday. "It is a powder keg which could only by resolved when a decision is taken by the Prime Minister," Mr Paisley said. "There will be civil commotion. This is serious and it is getting more serious."

But Mr Major insisted on backing the operational decisions of the RUC. In the Commons, he condemned the violence as "indefensible" and warned that it could set back the search for peace

However, the cross-party talks have become a side-issue in the confrontation leading up to the marching day of 12 July, the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne.

The eruption early yesterday, which is likely to cost the province's economy and tourist industry millions of pounds, saw some of Belfast's worst loyalist violence for years.

Two Catholic schools were damaged in fires and four Catholic families were forced to leave their homes in the Old Park area after intimidation by gangs of loyalists. Maria Darragh, one of the Catholic residents left at Torrens Drive, said she would also have to leave the area. "In the end, the fact is that I am a Catholic living in a Protestant area. We are just going to have to go."

The intimidation was attacked as "ethnic cleansing" by Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader.

Labour's spokesman for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, made a surprise visit to the scene in Portadown last night. Mr Breandan MacCionnaith of the Garvaghy Road Residents' Association, from the Nationalist area where the Orangemen are barred from marching, said the MP had visited them at their request.

He said: "She came at our invitation to listen to what we have to say. We are the victims in this but in some quarters in Britain we are being portrayed as the aggressors. She was sympathetic and heard what we had to say. I hope that she is going to condemn the Unionist violence and condemn Dr Paisley and Mr Trimble over what is going on here."

Some MPs believe Unionist leaders are fanning the flames. Mr Trimble has appeared on the Orangemen's front line, although he has been appealing for restraint.

Confrontation with the Unionist MPs on whom Mr Major may have to depend increased the threat of defeat in the Commons. His one-seat majority could be put to the test before the end of the month.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific