Ulster braced for Drumcree violence

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The Independent Online
Northern Ireland is bracing itself for violence across the province this morning following the decision by Ulster Secretary Mo Mowlam on whether or not to ban today's Orange march at Drumcree near Portadown.

Ms Mowlam held talks at Stormont Castle for most of yesterday with the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Ronnie Flanagan, and the Army commander in the province, Lt Gen Sir Rupert Smith. Government sources said she was willing to keep the talks going all night. Officials admitted there was merit in announcing the decision as late as possible in order to diminish the risk of violence by whichever side felt most aggrieved.

Troops poured into the Portadown area yesterday as tension mounted before Ms Mowlam's decision. So symbolic has Drumcree become after the confrontations of the past two years, it was sure to inflame one side or other whatever she did.

Catholics will be incensed if the march, which passes through the nationalist Garvaghy Road estate, is allowed; Protestants will be furious if what they see as an essential part of their culture is vetoed. If last year's events are anything to go by, extremists in whichever community feels wronged will try to wreak havoc with sectarian attacks or violence against the security forces.

The importance of Ms Mowlam's decision, which will influence the fate of any peace process for months to come, was underlined by a huge security operation yesterday, one of the largest seen in years. Hundreds of soldiers poured into Portadown, police and troops manned roadblocks at all key routes into the town and a large Army presence, including Saracen armoured personnel carriers, was established near Drumcree Church. The persistent buzz of helicopters could be heard overhead.

The army's dramatic increase in its presence at Drumcree may well be designed to prevent RUC officers, the vast majority of whom are Protestant, from bearing the brunt of demonstrations from loyalists if the march is banned, as they did last year.

The RUC is worried about the effects on its officers of confronting on a large scale the demonstrators, many of whom live in the same communities. Last year, after police officers were subjected to abuse during the disastrous standoff at Drumcree, more than 200 had to be rehoused in the province. This continuing tension was graphically illustrated six weeks ago when an off-duty RUC officer was kicked to death by Protestant thugs outside a pub.

Senior loyalist sources told the Independent on Sunday there was likely to be "widespread violence" if the Orange Order was banned from its traditional route.

Yesterday there was a deceptively calm air and the brightly coloured murals, bunting and Irish tricolours gave an almost festive appearance to the flashpoint area. Near Drumcree Church there was a heavy police and Army presence along lanes and in fields close to the spot where the Orangemen were stopped last year - before that decision was reversed five days later.

Focus, page 16

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