Trouble-free Drumcree raises Ulster peace hopes    

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The Independent Online

Hopes for a quiet marching season in Northern Ireland rose yesterday as the annual Drumcree Orange march in the Co Armagh town of Portadown passed off without incident.

Hopes for a quiet marching season in Northern Ireland rose yesterday as the annual Drumcree Orange march in the Co Armagh town of Portadown passed off without incident.

Although serious trouble had not been expected, a collective sense of relief was palpable as the potential flashpoint march produced no trouble.

Members of the local Orange Order were once again prevented from marching along the Garvaghy Road in Portadown's Catholic quarter. They confined their protest at the ban to verbal comments.

Politically, the authorities hope that a quiet summer means progress can be made in private contacts with the leading parties with a view to reviving the mothballed Stormont Assembly.

The contacts, which involve both the Northern Ireland Office and Cabinet Office, centre on Sinn Fein and the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party.

The DUP will not speak directly to Sinn Fein, but all involved are well aware that reviving devolution requires a deal between the republicans and the DUP.

While finding such an agreement is obviously a tall order, given the decades-old hostility between the two sides, some believe that elements within the DUP are keen to do business and get back to devolution.

The summer contacts are regarded as laying the groundwork for a big political push in September which will involve Tony Blair and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern. Mr Blair, in particular, is said to be impatient at the long suspension of the assembly and determined to have it up and running again.

The incident-free Drumcree is viewed as a good omen for this process. A thousand Orangemen and supporters made the annual trip to Drumcree church, where a large barricade prevented them from reaching the Garvaghy Road.

The accompanying rhetoric, from both Orangemen and nationalist residents, was comparatively free of bitterness and bile. Optimists hope that a gradual thaw is under way in the dispute, though progress is at a glacial pace measured in terms of years rather than months.

Like the DUP and Sinn Fein, the Orange Order and the residents do not speak face-to-face, but recently the two sides have corresponded by letter. Both are in frequent touch with the Parades Commission which decides whether marches should be banned or allowed.

This new element of dialogue follows years of coldness between the two sides of the dispute.

Speaking after the march, Chief Superintendent Jonathan McIvor said he was pleased it had passed without incident and hoped it would provide an impetus for the peaceful resolution of the parades issue. "It's been very orderly and well-marshalled by the Orange Order," he said. "That is a product of the close working relationship between police chiefs and community leaders over the past number of months." David Jones, an Orange spokesman, did not rule out talks with the nationalist residents, perhaps through intermediaries. "There could possibly be a time when there will be face-to-face talks, but that is not going to happen in the immediate future."

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