The marching season has been peaceful, but the poison of mistrust still bubbles

The Garvaghy Road demonstration passed without trouble. They wanted to march, but not another fruitless battle

The news from home is good. There is no news. Sorry if that sounds glib but I am revelling in the absence of blood and thunder. This is the marching season in Ulster when, as Louis MacNeice wrote, "the voodoo of the Orange drums flails through the limbo of the linen lands". Ulster has no linen industry left, but it still has Orange drums. For years they have rattled the windowpanes of Catholic Ulster, greeted with fury, sullen silence or temporary exile to the calm of the Republic.

For much of the past decade, and indeed long before that, some annual marches have provided a focal point for rage and bitterness as the Orangemen faced police and soldiers guarding Catholic areas such as the Garvaghy Road in Portadown. I was there once myself and never have I felt so vulnerable. I walked among the crowds feeling as if the words "Catholic"and "Southerner" were stencilled on my forehead. Nobody said anything to me until a producer shouted at the top of his voice: "Fergal, come over here." The name Fergal isn't too common on the frontline at Garvaghy Road. In my nervousness I imagined I'd been spotted by every Loyalist heavy in the place. Amid menacing stares I made my excuses and trotted away.

But the Garvaghy Road demonstrations passed off without trouble this year. The marchers went to the Protestant church and held a service in memory of the fallen of the Somme. Then they went to the police and army barricade and handed in a letter of protest. They wanted to march through the Catholic area but didn't want another fruitless physical battle. It has been said that the definition of insanity is to repeat negative behaviour and expect a different result. If that's true, then sanity prevailed on the Garvaghy Road.

Behind the scenes there were hints of a softening on both sides. Orangemen might be willing to think about dealing with nationalist leaders on the other side of the barricades, nationalists might be thinking of a compromise that would allow a march. Getting to that point might be a long way off yet, but it's been an important few days.

Here a few marching memories are in order. I first started reporting on Northern Ireland in the early 1980s. My first experience of an Orange march came when police decided to block loyalists who traditionally paraded through the "Tunnel", at Obin Street, in Portadown. With Anglo-Irish negotiations reaching a critical point (they would lead very soon to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement), Margaret Thatcher decided to face down the Orangemen intent on marching through Obin Street in defiance of a police ban.

That same summer the police would come under attack from loyalist paramilitaries who targeted them at home. The slogan "Come Home To A Real Fire - Join the RUC" appeared on the walls of Protestant housing estates. Arson attacks on police homes soon followed. I stood in Obin Street when the first Orange marchers reached the police lines. It was my first experience of large-scale crowd violence and it sickened me. There were stones, bottles, lumps of steel, railings used as spears. The police took a fearful battering.

The torrid marching season gave way to a winter of loyalist violence. For the first time in my memory the Royal Ulster Constabulary used plastic bullets against a Protestant mob. All of us reporting the conflict had the powerful sense that something profoundly important was taking place. Mrs Thatcher was facing down the kind of loyalist threats that had helped to bring down the last attempt to create a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland.

She is not well-loved among nationalists, but it was Mrs Thatcher who set in train the process that would lead to the Good Friday Agreement. Without her toughness, the Anglo-Irish Agreement would never have survived. Faced with the worst disorder since the Troubles erupted, Thatcher held firm. And without the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the principle of two governments working for peace wouldn't have blossomed into the Good Friday Agreement.

At different moments Thatcher, Major and Blair have shown real courage over Ireland. At times and in different ways they have faltered, but collectively there has been much to praise. Thatcher's toughness set a new template for dealing with the tried and trusted loyalist tactic: threaten London with disorder and it will back down.

So when this year's marching season rolled round, the Orange Order knew it stood no chance of getting through the lines. But past political firmness is one side of the equation. Add to that the depletion of the loyalist paramilitary ranks through their insatiable appetite for feuding, and you have something close to exhaustion on the extreme fringes of Protestant politics. This is important. For in the same way that the IRA cannot go back to war because of Sinn Fein's immersion in the political process, neither can Protestant paramilitaries pose anything more than a minor danger to peace.

This quiet season is wonderful, but I worry that it might be temporary. While the Orange marchers don't want to fight, they are becoming progressively more alienated from the political process. The Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble finds himself under siege.

Now his supporters are planning a second attempt to expel three dissident MPs - Jeffrey Donaldson, David Burnside and the Rev Martin Smyth - who've led the attempts to undermine Mr Trimble. The last attempt failed when the High Court upheld the MPs' contention that they'd been unfairly treated. Mr Trimble may get his way this time, but his long-term prospects look bleak. So nowhere in the panoply of Unionist leaders is there a figure with the political strength to lead a majority back into a power-sharing government with nationalists. This is sad, but I don't believe it can or will stay that way indefinitely.

If the power-sharing executive is not returned, then the Unionist position is weakened in the longer term. Supporters of the rebel MPs say it is republican intransigence that has brought the situation to its present impasse. They have a point. The paramilitary brutality that continued long after the ceasefire, and the continued intelligence gathering by the IRA, was an assault on the peace process. But Mr Trimble's supporters would say that if you regard peace as truly representing a "process", then logic dictates that you work the system from inside. The question for those leading the assault on David Trimble is simple enough: do you bring an end to all paramilitary activity by taking Unionists out of the government process?

It's too easy to forget the magnitude of what has been achieved so far. The war against the security forces is over. Sectarian murders are no longer an everyday feature of the political scene. And we have a marching season that has been amazingly peaceful. But the poison of mistrust on both sides still bubbles. Without political breakthrough it will eventually bring us back to the days of barricades and blood.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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