Who won the battle of Portadown, 1995?

Yesterday the Orangemen marched down Garvaghy Road with the reluctant acceptance of local Catholics. Just how significant was this compromise in the struggle for peace?
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The Independent Online
One might have expected this year's marching season in Northern Ireland to be less fraught than previous years. Ten months of peace have created fresh confidence. It is estimated that 70 lives have so far been saved as a result of the paramilitaries laying down their weapons. Optimists hoped that communal tensions might, by now, have diminished.

The battle for Portadown suggests the opposite. For days, hundreds of Orangemen, trusty Protestant burghers of County Armagh, stood defiant, determined to march their bands through a Roman Catholic part of the town. Ian Paisley warned: "We will die if necessary rather than surrender." Pessimists began to predict a Protestant backlash that would end in bloody conflict.

Yet the resolution yesterday of the Portadown impasse provides a glimmer of hope. On Monday night an irresistible force had collided with an immovable object, symbolising Northern Ireland's social divide. Yet the two sides did eventually reach a compromise. Yesterday, the Orangemen walked, albeit without their bands, along their traditional route with the permission of nationalist residents. There were no winners, no losers. Eventually, each side showed some sensitivity. Ironically, Portadown, a loyalist citadel, offers a model not for a fresh outbreak of sectarianism, but for a political settlement.

Events this week, however, highlight serious deficiencies in the peace process. The guns and bombs may have been silenced, but little progress has been made yet in securing a new modus vivendi for the two communities. Indeed, Protestants and Catholics are probably more alienated from each other now than in the past because of population shifts during the Troubles. The 1991 census found that more than half of all Protestants live in communities where at least 95 per cent of people are Protestant. Likewise, Catholics are increasingly concentrated in enclaves.

"The great problem with this peace process is that there has never been a hint of a new political consensus between nationalism and Unionism," says Robin Wilson, director of Democratic Dialogue, a new independent think-tank based in Belfast. Extremists, he says, have been brought into politics thanks to the double ceasefire by the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries, but moderates are no nearer to finding common political ground.

Part of the problem is that Northern Ireland's Protestants feel culturally threatened. Demographic trends are against them. Their march down Garvaghy Road in Portadown was fine 10 years ago, when plenty of Protestants lived there. Since then it has been taken over by Catholic families, who do not want triumphalist Orangemen marching past their front doors. The Unionists were furious about their march being banned. As non-conformists, with a strong belief in their own religious and civil liberty, they balk at any attempt to impose authority upon them.

Peace, it was hoped, would make Unionism more secure and open to reforms. But they see recent political changes such as the Framework Document, as being forced upon them. And their politicians look impotent. James Molyneaux, leader of the moderate Ulster Unionist Party, stands discredited among his own supporters, having failed to exercise the influence over John Major that he claimed to enjoy. Last month's North Down by-election saw victory for an independent Unionist calling for the complete integration of Northern Ireland into the UK. A vote for this outdated programme demonstrates Unionist unwillingness to fashion a modern agenda that can meet nationalism half-way.

Yet despite such immovability, the immediate threat to the peace process does not come from Unionism. Portadown, despite the disturbances, suggests that the Protestant community will step back from all-out conflict. Indeed, loyalist paramilitaries have pledged not to pick up the gun again, as long as the IRA rejects violence. The big problem over the next few months will be the nationalists.

The warning signs have been apparent for some time. As well as the continuation of punishment beatings by the IRA, last month saw 17 petrol bomb attacks. And the release of Private Lee Clegg last week moved the violence up another notch. There were hijackings and the torching of buildings. A normally reliable Irish newspaper reported last weekend that IRA brigades have been told to prepare in case the military campaign recommences.

The current escalation in violence springs from political stagnation. Sinn Fein has still not been brought in full roundtable talks, because of the row over decommissioning weapons. And no IRA prisoners have been freed early. As a result, the first anniversary of the IRA ceasefire on 31 August looms ominously. Unless something changes, those republicans who are fed up with peace will complain that the only prisoner released by Britain, after a year's ceasefire, is Private Clegg, convicted of murdering a Catholic.

The British Government would, therefore, be unwise to take comfort from defusion yesterday of the powder keg in Portadown. If it fails to press ahead quickly with at least some prisoner releases and more comprehensive talks, the future for peace will look grimmer come 31 August.

Jack O'Sullivan