Surly stand-off brings peace to Drumcree

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The Independent Online

They are moving in on Drumcree again this weekend: police and troops with riot shields, water cannon and all the familiar anti-riot paraphernalia.

They are moving in on Drumcree again this weekend: police and troops with riot shields, water cannon and all the familiar anti-riot paraphernalia.

Except that this time it is different, for now these are precautions that few expect will have to be used. The mass stand-offs and widespread rioting which blighted Northern Ireland from 1995 on have gone.

Over the years Drumcree-related violence has caused the deaths of several men and three children. Now the belief is that there will be no further tragedies in this town, which many see as a microcosm of Northern Ireland's wider political situation.

Garvaghy Road, for years the epicentre of annual conflict, is today practically devoid of tension. Where once ranks of police and troops faced loyalists in night-long clashes, people now go casually about their business.

The Co Armagh town of Portadown is the main focus of parading disputes, as Orangemen seek to march through the Catholic quarter of the mostly Protestant town.

But few believe that violence will flare up this year when the Orangemen march from the town to the Drumcree church tomorrow morning: turmoil has been replaced by something close to tranquillity.

The Parades Commission has again forbidden the loyalists to return via the Garvaghy Road. This ban is to the satisfaction of Catholic residents but continues to rankle with Orangemen, who see it as an infringement of their rights.

The district and the town have therefore come to resemble the general state of the Northern Ireland peace process: after years of disruption things have calmed down, a surly stand-off emerging. But there is no agreed resolution.

Because of this, hundreds of police and troops will be on standby tomorrow. A police officer said: "At this moment things are looking good. I can detect a real desire that it should be peaceful." But no chances are being taken.

The Garvaghy Road has changed almost beyond recognition in less than a decade. Its housing estates look smarter, with new trees and shrubs giving a leafier appearance.

Most strikingly of all are the new estates containing hundreds of private homes along much of the contested roadway, together with a new business centre. The site of urban conflict is now becoming suburbia.

An occasional visitor to Portadown said: "It used to look so depressed but now there's heart in the place."

A local spokesman, Brendan McKenna, agreed. "It signifies a community with a confidence in itself," he said. "Not only the houses, but the business centre, which is a community-based initiative employing more than 60 people."

Garvaghy Road used to think of itself as a place under siege but, he said, that is no longer the case. "The sense of being under physical siege has gone, but there's still the question of how to integrate the communities."

In Portadown the nationalists essentially won the argument, convincing the world that Orangemen who insisted on going through their district were trampling over their rights.

Some Orangemen still have a sense of resentment about the annual ban, but in many quarters there is also a weariness with the issue. The Parades Commission reflected this in its ruling, noting: "Both communities show a desire for closure of the problem so that Portadown could move on."

The Portadown Orange leadership has moved appreciably over the years in its attempts to reverse the annual bans. Earlier this year representatives attended talks with the Commission in South Africa.

The Parades Commission commended the Orangemen for providing "thoughtful and creative leadership". The biggest problem for the Orangemen, however, is their continuing refusal to hold talks with Catholic residents.

According to David Jones, an spokesman for the Orangemen: "There's a community in Portadown that sees there's actually unfinished business. Garvaghy Road residents may feel the matter has been resolved, but people from the Unionist and Orange side certainly don't feel that."

These days most Protestant areas have fewer flags flying. Mr Jones said: "We've engaged with communities to achieve that, to clean up areas." But not all Protestant districts have managed the same level of improvement. In Edgarstown, close to the town centre, material has been gathered for the annual loyalist bonfire.

The event is, it is argued, an integral part of Protestant culture. But in the meantime an open space has been turned into a rubbish dump, with wooden pallets, sofas and other combustible material strewn over almost an acre of ground.

This represents a new avenue of assertiveness among loyalists. What the Parades Commission described as a "genuine and severe sense of loss" among Orangemen over the marching ban has led to bigger bonfires in Portadown.

The commission continues to hope for "understanding and empathy, with genuine and meaningful engagement".

In the meantime Portadown is a metaphor for the peace process: a rough-and-ready peace prevails, but it has been imposed from outside rather than developed from within.

A properly negotiated and stable settlement continues to elude the town, just as it eludes Northern Ireland as a whole.