ULSTER PEACE TALKS: A sleepy village, a fortress of razor wire and an army steeled for battle

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ON A GATE outside Drumcree parish church, just 50 yards from the place where water cannon will line up against British demonstrators for the first time, is a sign that reads: "Please stay out of the graveyard."

It was largely ignored yesterday as bewildered residents watched the unprecedented security build-up in advance of tomorrow's banned Orange parade, but many would do well to heed its message.

The two water cannon were unveiled last night as a warning to Protestant dissidents who Sir Ronnie Flanagan, Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, believes want to use the event to sow the seeds of violence. They have been borrowed from Belgian police - who also provided training - as an alternative to plastic bullets, which have killed more than a dozen people during the Troubles.

Last night, however, with less than 48 hours to go to the march, many saw them not as a deterrent but a provocation. "It's like saying: `You can't be trusted to behave yourselves, so we'll treat you like animals'," one Orangeman said.

The sleepy village of Drumcree, four miles outside Portadown in Co Armagh, was turned into a fortress just after dawn yesterday. Royal Engineers rolled in at first light and began building an "obstacle belt" designed to keep the frustrated Orange marchers from taking their traditional route down the Catholic Garvaghy Road.

The community is now split in two, physically as well as on religious grounds. A 15ft-high green metal barricade, topped with razor wire, has been erected on Drumcree Road on the south side of a brook some 200m from Drumcree parish church. The Garvaghy Road, festooned with Irish tricolour flags, is south of that point.

North of it is the church and the place where, from today, Orangemen from all over the province will gather in what is predicted to be an angry confrontation. Union flags and bunting deck the northern end of the road but there is a new feature on the landscape - 50 yards of ploughed-up field, a barrier that will muddy and delay any advance by Protestants intent on violence.

If they get past that, they will have the brook to negotiate - but that has been sandbagged further upstream to widen and deepen it. Anyone who successfully jumps, wades or swims the water will have to contend with row upon row of metal staves driven into fields on the south side of the brook and draped in miles and miles of razor wire.

In the highly unlikely event of all the defences being breached, the water cannon would repel attackers back in a northerly direction.

"I have never seen anything like it in all my life," said a Catholic man on the Garvaghy Road yesterday. "Sure, it makes you feel more secure, but it also suggests there is going to be trouble like we never expected. I think I'll be staying out of town over the weekend."

Protestants are more angry than surprised at the reaction of the security forces to mounting clarion calls from Protestants frustrated at the republican refusal to decommission arms.

David Jones, a spokesman for the Orangemen, said: "The landscape has been scarred. It is obscene, disgraceful. Imagine, all this just to prevent a seven-and-a-half minute parade walking down the road. It is disgusting and provocative and one has to question why such arrangements have to be put in place when one-tenth of these resources could have been used to stop IRA murders and bombings over the past 30 years."

On the Catholic side of the divide, two young girls watched the deployment of the barricade with growing astonishment. "I'm really scared," said one of them. "It's all very well putting that lot up, but it won't stop a bullet getting over, will it?"

On the northern side, Unionists said they were "disgusted" by the preventative measures.

"I can't believe they would go to these lengths to prevent us exercising our right to march peacefully along our traditional route," said a man who described himself as a supporter of the Rev Ian Paisley. "Protestants are feeling more and more isolated. They talk about civil rights but it seems the only way now to get civil rights is to be a nationalist."

Everywhere one looked, there were armoured personnel carriers and the armoured Land-Rovers of the RUC. The number of soldiers sent to the province was swelled yesterday by 400 to 1,700 and many of them were already in the area. It was clear that the Protestants considered them more of a provocation than the Catholics did a comfort.

Nevertheless, the Army and the RUC were unrepentant, insisting that the safety of residents was paramount.The deployment of water cannon, the RUC said, was not provocative but "merely to provide an additional flexible response".

The Army said: "Clearly the security forces had to have regard to the possibility of hooligan elements seeking to breach the peace at Drumcree from Sunday onwards. The precautions put in place are prudent and sensible and they have to ensure that no such elements are successful."

There were signs, however, that the precautions were more likely to attract "hooligans" than to deter them.

On the Protestant side of the brook, overlooked by troops on top of the barricade, periodically training their sights on passers-by, was another sign, posted on a large board outside a fast-food shack.

"He shall cause craft to prosper in his hand and he shall magnify himself in his heart and by peace he shall destroy many! Daniel 8:25," it said. Yesterday, as the sun fell on the talks at Stormont, the message seemed ominously ambiguous.