Does defeat at Drumcree mean Ulster's Protestants have lost?

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At Drumcree church near Portadown the Orange Order has a little steel hut bearing the slogan: "Here we stand - we can do no other." But this week no one was standing there, and the hut was all locked up.

The church was a scene of rural tranquillity, looking for all the world like a place where nothing has ever happened rather than the centre of an annual sectarian eruption.

What now looks like the stuff of picture postcards was not long ago the setting for bitter confrontation and a grim test of wills which often convulsed much of Northern Ireland.

There will be another test of wills tomorrow, but the hope and expectation is that it will be more a weary ritual than a major clash. Much of the tension that used to mark "Drumcree Sunday" has drained away.

Even so, everybody knows that trouble can flare out of nowhere, as it did last year when brief but nasty violence broke out between some marchers and police. So the security forces will be there again.

Brendan McKenna, a spokesman for Catholic residents, described the changed atmosphere: "There's a sense within this community that Drumcree is fizzling out. The Orange march is becoming a side issue for people now because it no longer has the relevance that it had."

As this suggests, Northern Ireland has come a long way since 1996, when Drumcree almost led to a breakdown of law and order. Loyalists staged hundreds of roadblocks and erected barricades over much of Northern Ireland, bringing life in areas to a standstill.

There was wholesale intimidation, burning and looting in areas of Belfast, widespread destruction of property, and more than 100 people were injured. A huge amount of anger was generated, a senior Presbyterian minister describing the aftermath as "Northern Ireland's Chernobyl, with almost a meltdown in community relations."

This is Drumcree, year nine. When the cycle began in the mid-1990s many Protestants were proud that, after decades of power seeping away from Unionism and Orangeism, they appeared to have scored a rare victory. They even struck a self-congratulatory "Siege of Drumcree" medal.

But it gradually dawned that getting the marches through meant turmoil and instability, pitting loyalists against the police in an annual pyrrhic victory for the Unionist cause. And as the absence of Orangemen around the hut suggests, loyalists cannot find a way through.

And so the Drumcree march came to be banned by the Northern Ireland Parades Commission, transforming that initial Protestant victory into a yearly reminder of the loss of Protestant power. Just as many Protestants dislike many aspects of the overall peace process, so they find the Drumcree dilemma distasteful. Getting the march through entails disorder; not getting it through is an annual defeat.

The relatively relaxed view of Mr McKenna stems largely from the fact that this is the sixth consecutive year the march has been banned from going through the Catholic Garvaghy Road district. The annual march has become an annual ban.

As they have done for more than a century, the Orangemen of Portadown will tomorrow march to the little country church but afterwards they will be prevented from going back into the town via the Catholic area.

During the year, the local Orange Order lodge has been trying all sorts of behind- the-scenes manoeuvres in an effort to secure official permission for the march, but as usual it has not worked.

"The Order told us quietly that this time we'd make it, but I just know that we won't be allowed to walk. It's our right to walk," one grassroots Orangeman said plaintively.

Local Orangemen remain impassioned about what they see as their rights but have become steadily more disillusioned about the chances of "getting down Garvaghy". This can be seen in the steady drop in numbers attending the Orange marches.

Over in the Catholic community, some mock the Orange predicament. One activist has in his office little figurines of Laurel and Hardy, to which little sashes have been added. A handwritten sign has Hardy saying to Laurel: "Another fine mess you've got me into." It conveys the sense that the Order has become less menacing, more ridiculous.

The Order does not seem to know which way to turn. One Portadown Protestant, who asked three times not to be identified - "Don't use my name under any circumstances" - said Orange opinion was splintered. He said: "An awful lot of the more moderate, - the people who were in the Order for social reasons, meeting the boys kind of thing - have drifted away, as well as some professional people." The Order has a major hang-up about talking to Mr McKenna and the Garvaghy residents, and has never done so. It is this stance which has led to the annual ban, since the Parades Commission lays great store on dialogue and local agreements.

While the Commission accepts that competing rights are involved in the marching issue, it generally concludes, in the words of one observer, that the Protestant right to walk should not take precedence over the Catholic right not to be walked over.

The Order has talked to many agencies, including the Government, the police and Protestant churchmen, but its aversion to dialogue with local Catholics has proved fatal to its attempts to march down the Garvaghy Road.

Fevered last-minute attempts at a settlement continued yesterday but seemed fated to failure in the absence of any sudden Orange decision to finally meet Mr McKenna and his people face to face.

Garvaghy Road itself is now largely clear of the republican and nationalist regalia which used to adorn its length, only a few ageing Irish tricolours remaining.

It has been cleaned up considerably in recent years, no longer resembling a war zone, with new homes built at several points. It exudes increased confidence and communal pride, precisely by looking so ordinary.

By contrast, the centre of Portadown, which is known as the Orange citadel, are what might be called a riot of colour, with an abundance of red, white and blue bunting and a plethora of Union and Ulster flags. In some of the flowerbeds orange blooms have a very definite prominence.

"Town's doing well," said a local businessman. "There's money being invested in Portadown now; it's not nearly as bad as it was. There were three or four very bad years there and then things started easing a bit."

Back over in the Catholic section, Mr McKenna agreed. "Things have moved on. 1998-99 was probably the worst period with almost nightly Orange protests, so we had a complete sense of siege.

"Yes, there are still incidents but the past year has seen a dramatic drop in the number that have been occurring round the town. Why? A war weariness maybe, for want of a better term."

The state of Portadown perhaps reflects the state of the wider peace process: it is at best a sullen peace, with periodic flare-ups. Many issues remain unresolved and reconciliation is not yet in evidence. Yet in Portadown, as elsewhere, most people think things are far, far better than they used to be.


1995: Dozens of Protestants flocked to Drumcree after a traditional Orange march was blocked by police. After several tense days the parade was allowed through, without a band. David Trimble, who was prominent in the protest, was later elected leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

1996: Widespread loyalist disturbances broke out at Drumcree and elsewhere when the authorities first banned the parade but then allowed it through to prevent a breakdown of law and order. After this, nationalist rioting broke out.

1997: The Orange parade was allowed through, guarded by large numbers of police and troops.

1998: The new Parades Commission banned the march, sparking large-scale loyalist rioting. The disturbances came to an end when a loyalist petrol bomb attack on a Co Antrim house resulted in the deaths of three young brothers.

1999: After the Parades Commission again banned the march, loyalist rioting broke out. In a related incident, loyalists killed a police officer.

2000: Loyalist protests followed the now-expected ban, with roads blocked in many areas. Nearly 300 people were injured, most of them police officers.

2001: A quiet year followed the usual ban as the Order sought to have only peaceful protests in the hope of being allowed through the following year.

2002: Although this looked likely to be another quiet year, violence followed as a section of the Order and supporters clashed with police, with more than 20 officers injured. But the disturbances were relatively brief, and confined to the Portadown area.