Ulster rides a rollercoaster of relief and fear

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In Northern Ireland these days one emotion has hardly time to take root before it is rudely shouldered out of the way by another. The dread before Drumcree was afterwards replaced by depression: yesterday it was suddenly superseded by an exultant euphoria.

The hope is that the huge sense of relief generated by the Orange Order's dramatic decision not to press ahead with four contentious marches today, July 12, the most hallowed day in their calender, will endure, and will not abruptly supplanted by some less pleasant feeling.

That decision transformed the atmosphere - "Do you know," said one woman wonderingly, "People are walking up and down the Lisburn Road smiling." Protestants seemed as pleased as Catholics, although there is a political shadow for them in the fear that another piece of their Protestant heritage has been chipped away.

The Orange decision was breathtaking in that it came out of the blue, and in that it had so few precedents in the Order's two-century history.

Instead of assembling in Londonderry where thousands of Bogsiders were prepared to stage protests, up to 20,000 Orangemen will gather at Limavady, where there is no chance of confrontation. In Belfast, the march scheduled for the bitterly contested Lower Ormeau has been called off, together with two more minor parades elsewhere.

While the decision was taken by many of the Order's senior figures, yesterday brought signs of serious dissension in the ranks. In particular, the important County Grand Lodge of Belfast deplored the move, calling on David Trimble to lead the Ulster Unionist Party out of political talks in protest.

Joel Patton, of the militant Spirit of Drumcree ginger group, issued a direct challenge to the Orange leadership, which he accused of showing "complete incompetency [sic] and cowardice". His call for Orangemen to "make their views known at the demonstrations" may lead to heckling at today's parades and will provide a test of the strength of feeling in the grassroots.

The Rev Ian Paisley, who is is not himself an Orangeman but has influence in the ranks, was furious: it was a complete and total sell-out, a decision of surrender; it was Munich 1938 all over again.

The decision appears to have been taken primarily on security grounds rather than political considerations. When the Royal Ulster Constabulary Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan, was invited on Thursday to the House of Orange, the Order's Belfast headquarters, he delivered a sobering and highly convincing security assessment.

It may have gone something like this: that with up to 75,000 Orangemen on the move right across Northern Ireland, there simply are not enough police and troops to guarantee their safety and the maintenance of public order. With Orangemen mustering at 18 major centres, there will be scores of "feeder" marches before the main demonstrations and scores more afterwards.

There was the possibility of clashes with various nationalist residents groups; the possibility of the small but ruthless Irish National Liberation Army shooting at Orangemen; the possibility that disorder which began at one spot could spread. With the security forces at full stretch, the nightmare scenario was that of unpoliced sectarian clashes.

Noel Ligget, who as district master of Ballynafeigh was a key figure in deciding to abandon the Lower Ormeau parade, spelt out some of this when he said: "In the past I have been very sceptical of Mr Flanagan, but he clearly indicated to us that there were elements within the republican community who were looking to create the maximum amount of civil disorder. The final bottom line was that there was a significant opportunity of a loss of life, and at the end of the day we felt under those circumstances it would not be right to proceed with the parade."

The decision leaves many issues unresolved: a pessimist might point out that the Order preferred to make a unilateral decision, even one that went right against all its cherished traditions, rather than enter dialogue with nationalists.

But last night most in Belfast were simply overjoyed that the decision went a long way to ensuring that the Twelfth could pass off without major disorder.