Ulster faces the collapse of civil order

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The Independent Online
A pall of foreboding, uncertainty and fear hung over Northern Ireland yesterday as its population wondered whether the next few days could bring compromise and relief, or something close to a breakdown of law and order. Last night a fresh wave of hijacking and road-blocking broke out in and around north Belfast, with a number of vehicles set alight on major roads.

Crowds of up to 300 were seen in some Loyalists strongholds in the Tiger Bay district. In one area, 200 men were blocking a road in a sit-down protest. The normally bustling streets of central Belfast were virtually deserted late last night. Pubs and off-licences closed early, as did almost every business in the city centre.

Up to 10,000 loyalists staged a massive rally at Drumcree. Thousands of Orangemen poured in from all over the province, with bands and bagpipes, contributing to an almost carnival-like atmosphere as they faced barbed wire and a cordon of police. Several hundred soldiers stayed behind the police lines in reserve.

Substantial parts of the country seem to be in the grip of men in balaclavas who, through a mixture of menace and force of numbers, are posing a serious challenge to lawful authority.

In north Belfast, loyalist elements have, in time-honoured fashion, turned to Belfast's version of ethnic cleansing - attacking and threatening Catholic families and mixed marriages. "Taigs out" has been daubed on Catholic doors, and houses petrol-bombed.

BBC Radio Ulster's traffic and travel bulletins, which used to give warning of roadworks and overturned lorries, now convey a new and sinister flavour of what life has become: "In Co Down the A22 Comber to Killyleagh Road has just been blocked. The towns of Markethill, Portadown, Castlederg, Tandragee, Donaghcloney and Caledon, are all closed. No roads are closed at the moment in Carrickfergus, but there have been a couple of attempted hijackings there."

Unease is increased by the fact that with tomorrow, 12 July, comes the traditional climax of the loyalist marching season. The nightmare scenario is that instead of their usual parades, or after them, many will converge on Drumcree. Those who hope that a negotiated settlement might yet emerge to defuse the tension drew some comfort yesterday from meetings which might evolve into a negotiating process. In the city of Armagh, David Trimble took the unusual step, for a leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, of meeting the leaders of the four main churches, including Cardinal Cahal Daly, leader of Ireland's Catholics.

After what appears to have been a constructive meeting, Dr Daly warned that the potential of the Drumcree stand-off was "catastrophic and could not be over-exaggerated". As the tension mounted, the John Major appealed to the unionist leaders to accept a compromise to end the confrontation.

In another development, Government officials went to Portadown to meet members of the Catholic community whose protests led to the re-routing of the Drumcree march.

Dr Daly's comments raised the question of the seriousness of this, the latest in Northern Ireland's long line of recurring and apparently unending crises, and where it figures on the Ulster Richter scale. In terms of deaths, it does not compare with previous events, and nor does it represent some momentous and irreversible political development.

But a Catholic has been shot dead, and the men on the roadblocks have created an ominous atmosphere. The Government clearly regards the situation as one of the utmost gravity. The feeling is that the dark, almost elemental forces which periodically spring to the surface of Northern Ireland, are being unleashed. No easy compromise to the Drumcree dilemma is obvious, and with unionist leaders such as David Trimble pitted against the Government, that section of the loyalist lumpenproletariat which loves conflict feels free to take to the streets.

The communal apprehension is all the greater since, until the IRA broke its ceasefire in February, the sense was general that the Troubles had reached their final phase. No one thought it would be easy, but Protestants and Catholics alike were saying publicly that the endgame of the conflict had been reached, and that the outcome might be some kind of honourable draw.

To many it looks as though the Drumcree impasse, at this fearful moment, may be that most terrible of things - a game in which no draw is possible, a problem without a solution - the point where an irresistible force meets an immovable object.

During the Troubles, republicans have inflicted enormous damage but, with the possible exception of the 1981 hunger strikes, have never really made Northern Ireland look ungovernable. The two occasions on which it has come closest to that point both concerned the work of loyalists - the Protestant general strike of 1974 and the anti-Anglo-Irish agreement protests of 1985.

The current crisis has yet to reach such destabilising levels, but it could yet do so, and it could let loose elements that no one will be able to control.

Hate and wire, pages 4,5