Ulster strikes up band for compromise

As the marching season starts, loyalists and Catholics seek way out of crisis
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The Independent Online
A series of private mediation attempts are under way to try to ensure that Northern Ireland's Protestant marching season, which starts next week, does not see a repeat of last year's disastrous Drumcree stand-off.

Politicians, community leaders, clerics and others are working behind the scenes to try to avoid disagreements over marching routes degenerating into street clashes and disturbances.

Already there have been encouraging signs of a desire in many quarters to reach accommodation on contentious routes. The majority of the 3,000- plus parades pass off without incident, but in a few dozen cases the potential exists for serious disagreements and potential confrontations.

Last year's widespread disturbances had a seriously destabilising effect on many aspects of society, worsening already deep divisions, causing community relations to plummet, and sharply undermining public confidence in the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

They also cost tens of millions of pounds, leading to cuts in housing, education and other areas as money has been diverted to pay for the extensive damage and the huge security bill.

The first major march of the season, which is due to take place next Monday on Ormeau Road in south Belfast, now looks likely to pass off peacefully. The Apprentice Boys of Derry organisation, which has in the past insisted on marching through a Catholic stretch of the road, announced last week that it would march to the start of the disputed route but thereafter proceed by coach.

This has been hailed as a conciliatory move. In another encouraging development, Orangemen and Catholic residents in the Co Tyrone village of Dromore have come to a measure of agreement on a parade to be held there on 12 July, when thousands of Orangemen all over Ireland and beyond celebrate the victory of King William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne.

At the same time, however, precautions are being taken in anticipation of possible trouble. The RUC is acquiring flame-proof overalls for protection against petrol-bombers in case of outbreaks of severe rioting.

A police spokesman said: "We are clearly hoping we will not see a repeat of last year's trouble, but we have to be prepared."

Many civilians, meanwhile, are laying plans to leave the Province during the marching season's climax in July, when the pivotal Drumcree march takes place. Travel agents report a larger than normal increase in holiday bookings for this period.

One Belfast shopkeeper said: "A lot of my customers say to me they hope there'll be no trouble, but if there is they'll not be here to see it. A lot of them are going down south. I've never closed my shop over the holiday period before, but this year I'm seriously thinking about it - I'll see how things go nearer the time."

The evidence is that most people want to avert another summer of serious confrontation, but there are so many marches that if one or more leads to trouble the atmosphere can quickly turn sour.

Many observers are, however, drawing comfort from the fact that Portadown loyalist Billy Wright, regarded as one of the prime movers in last year's disturbances, has been removed from the scene. Last month, he was jailed for eight years on intimidation charges.

In many cases, key decisions are taken not by the leaders of the three main Protestant marching organisations, but by small numbers of locals. In the past, many such individuals have tended to become engrossed in their local perspectives, sometimes to the exclusion of wider considerations.

There have also been complaints that the Government has not done more to establish clear lines of decision-making on marching bans and re-routing. It has yet to accept or reject the main findings of a major report on parades which was published earlier this year.

The next government, whether Labour or Conservative, will face pressure for early decisions on marching procedures.

The election campaign itself could also pose difficulties, particularly if the major Unionist parties become locked in a struggle for the hardline Protestant vote.