Ulster's new peace survives marching threat

THE NEW era of peace in Northern Ireland passed its first serious test yesterday when one of the most contentious days in the province's marching calendar passed without incident.

Politicians on both sides of the political divide expressed their relief after a violence-free Apprentice Boys' parade was held in Belfast.

But the chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Ronnie Flanagan, said there was still a danger of "tremendous disorder" in the weeks ahead.

"Undoubtedly there are people out there intent on murder, intent on bombing, intent on wrecking any prospect that there is for a peaceful outcome," he said.

Only a dozen marchers from the Belfast Walker Club, together with one band, took part in the half-mile parade along the almost-deserted Ormeau Road.

There was no protest by Catholic residents and only a low-key police presence as the marchers stopped at the Ormeau bridge, in line with a ruling by the Parades Commission. The bridge had been a flashpoint for violence in previous years.

Marchers handed in a letter of protest about the re-routing when they reached a line of police Land Rovers at the bridge, which divides the two communities, but there was no confrontation. Twenty other loyalist Easter Monday parades also passed off without incident.

Catholic residents welcomed the conduct of the marchers. "This community is elated," said Gerard Rice of the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community.

But he called for urgent dialogue between the loyal orders and Catholic communities. "I don't consider having RUC Land Rovers and the world's media at the bridge to be a solution. We need to resolve the core issues here," he said.

Mr Flanagan praised the marchers' "great maturity", but expressed his concern that there was no evidence of any local agreements about other contentious parades.

Worthington McGrath, of the Belfast Walker Club, said members were "bitterly disappointed" at the re-routing.

"We had gone to great lengths to meet the wishes of the Parades Commission and we live in hope that we will cross the bridge and parade into the city centre," he said.

The re-routing of the march was the first decision of the Parades Commission, which was set up to try to avert sectarian clashes.

It has still to take its most crucial decision - whether to allow an Orange Order march down the nationalist Garvaghy Road, Portadown, to Drumcree church in July. The Commission's preliminary views on Drumcree and other contentious parades are due to be announced in the week beginning 20 April.

As the province geared up for a 22 May referendum on the peace settlement, the Pope yesterday appealed for "responsible and concrete gestures" to make the deal a success. The agreement reached last week "allows those peoples so dear and so long afflicted to look toward the future with greater trust," he said.

But rebel Ulster Unionist Party MPs have threatened to join a "no" campaign being spearheaded by the Democratic Unionist Party leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, to bring down the agreement.

William Thompson, Ulster Unionist Party MP for West Tyrone, said he "probably would support" the campaign, which will be launched on Wednesday with adverts in local newspapers.

Letters, page 16

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