RUC warns single incident could ignite protests

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With Northern Ireland's annual Drumcree marching confrontation due to begin tomorrow, the Royal Ulster Constabulary has warned that a single spark could ignite widespread loyalist protests.

Senior Protestant churchmen, mindful of the serious disturbances that have broken out in previous years, appealed for calm and restraint yesterday as tensions mounted.

Tens of thousands of people have simply left the country, having decided to time their holidays to coincide with Drumcree. Tomorrow's march has been banned from proceeding along the Catholic Garvaghy Road district of Portadown.

The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, meanwhile publicly apologised for his allegation that a Catholic teenager killed in Antrim earlier this week had been killed by republicans. Security source and local people said there was no doubt 19-year-old Ciaran Cummings had been killed by loyalists. There was a strong reaction from nationalists when Mr Trimble suggested the killing had been connected with drugs or racketeering.

He said yesterday: "Clearly the indications I had received were inaccurate, and obviously I withdraw those comments and I wish to apologise to the family for any suffering that the comments may have caused."

He was speaking at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast, where he and other political leaders are taking part in talks. He said he was not optimistic of a breakthrough at next week's talks, which are to take place in Shropshire.

Apprehension that a "bad", by which is meant a violent, Drumcree may be in the offing rose when a crowd carrying Belfast Ulster Freedom Fighters banners staged a protest on Thursday night.

The UFF and another grouping, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, are considered the organisations most likely to take part in violence over the next week, and there have been contradictory indications as to their intentions. David Jones, the spokesman for the Portadown Orangemen, said they welcomed any support as long as it was peaceful.

Sir Ronnie Flanagan, Chief Constable of the RUC, maintained that violence was not inevitable. "I don't think it is unavoidable – there are some positive signs. In previous years, we experienced nightly violence that thankfully has not been manifest in the past week. Intelligence at the moment is that the paramilitary organisations by and large do not want organisationally to be involved in this."

Assistant Chief Constable Steven White, who is responsible for policing Drumcree, said: "We are preparing for the worst but hoping for the best. It will only take one spark to ignite or inflame the situation."

The Presbyterian church moderator Dr Alastair Dunlop said: "Since in past years protests have got out of control, and have resulted in intimidation and death and chaos across much of Northern Ireland, I would encourage people to restrain themselves."

The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Rev Robin Eames, said: "I utterly condemn any effort by anyone to turn the Orange Order protest into a show of physical strength leading to violence."