Drumcree march ends with traditional impasse

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Like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, the annual Orangemen's parade at Drumcree, Co Armagh, ended in its usual impasse yesterday, with the police stopping the procession halfway and the marchers vowing to return again next year.

For the fourth successive year, the Northern Ireland Parades Commission had refused to allow the Portadown Loyal Orange Lodge to march along the mainly Catholic Garvaghy Road. And for the fourth successive year, lodges from all over Ulster joined local loyalists in demanding the right to walk the Queen's highway.

In their way was a 15ft high metal and concrete barricade, a deeply ploughed field, armed soldiers, miles and miles of razor wire and a stream that had been manipulated to appear more like a moat than a tributary of the river Bann.

"It's despicable," said a 77-year-old former RAF serviceman and Orangeman, standing in front of the fortifications. "You wouldn't even see that kind of thing in Bosnia. Do they think we're animals?"

They were sentiments repeated over and over again outside Drumcree parish church, where some 2,000 Orangemen had gathered for their annual noonday service to commemorate those who died in the Battle of the Somme. Unlike previous years, however, there was less vitriol in the air and most of the marchers dispersed under grey skies shortly after the parade was halted at the barricade.

By 3pm, the field opposite the Army's fortifications, a place from which stones and petrol bombs had been thrown and rockets fired in previous years, was almost completely empty.

In the evening the numbers of protesters grew from about one hundred to several hundred. The crowd was mostly good-natured. Fireworks were thrown intermittently, razor wire at the top of the barricades was cut and there were reports of three petrols bombs being thrown into the no-man's land between demonstrators and the security forces.

"I won't hold my breath," said a Catholic woman on the Garvaghy Road, "but it looks as if I might be able to go to work tomorrow." In the past, Garvaghy residents have been besieged in their homes for up to a week.

The march, which some observers felt was less well attended than last year, meandered from the lodge's headquarters in Portadown to the church at Drumcree where the Rev John Pickering conducted the remembrance service. Like many in the congregation, however, he sounded frustrated and disappointed at what loyalists see as an erosion of their rights.

"There seems to be no solution to the Drumcree situation," he said. "To be at Drumcree today seems to be in a dead-end situation. I believe that the barrier on the road seems to many people to be saying, in a very visual manner, that this is the end of the road for the Orangemen of Portadown and many beyond. And I believe that this barrier seems to be symbolic of Northern Ireland being at the end of the road or nearly there."

After the service, lodge officials and two sword bearers marched up to the barricade and waited for a section to open, revealing a phalanx of police in riot gear who parted to reveal a red-bearded chief inspector from the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Nigel Dawson, the Orange Lodge district secretary, stepped forward and articulated three points: a complaint that Steven Wright, the Assistant Chief Constable, had not come to speak to the marchers, as they had requested; a demand that the barrier should be removed; and a call for the parades commissioners to resign. He received satisfaction on none of the points and the barricade clanged shut in front of him.

All around, the lexicon of frustrated sectarian politics was everywhere. People wore T-shirts saying: "Orange Heaven, Drumcree 7", a reference to the fact that trouble has flared at Drumcree for seven years in a row.

There were posters showing the Pope floored by a rock and Union flags declaring: "The Future is Bright, The Future is Orange", after the mobile telephone advertisement.

Harold Gracey, the lodge's district master, earned loud applause when he vowed that the Orangemen would continue to maintain a presence in Drumcree to push for the right to resume marching. But with paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Defence Association promising not to use Drumcree to foment trouble, hopes were growing last night that the event could pass off peacefully.

It was a request repeated over and again by Bobby Saulters, the grand master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland, in spite of his bitter criticism of the Parades Commission. "Once again, they have shown only prejudice against our community," he said.

"We are being denied the fundamental right to walk away from our church on a Sunday morning. We have tried everything to get a peaceful solution but our freedom does not feature on the agenda of those who oppose us."

On the other side of the barricade, however, in streets from which thousands had fled for the week, the denial of one right ­ to march ­ was seen as the granting of another ­ the right to live in peace and not be subjected to triumphalism.

"I just hope it stays quiet," said one man.

* Police tracking hardline republican groups last night found a cache of mortar bombs and rockets at two locations in Co Kildare in the Irish Republic. It followed the discovery of a suspected paramilitary training camp and the arrest of two men under anti-terrorism laws. The men were being questioned by detectives last night.