Leading article: A slow march to progress

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In Northern Ireland some things seem never to change, among them the metronomic determination of parts of the Orange Order to march past Catholic areas where they are not welcome. Similarly, some nationalists and republicans show equal determination to stage protests against such parading, as they showed this week in north Belfast.

Some protesters travelled miles to Ardoyne, so determined were they to be affronted by the Orangemen. The two sides were thus maintaining an equilibrium between those who seek to annoy and those who seek to be annoyed.

A peace process is in place, and effective in many ways, but various points of conflict remain and the July parades present a perfect opportunity to air them. While the peace process has delivered a great deal, marching season clashes go on. Unhappily they have the sanction of history, since sectarian affrays have been breaking out in Belfast for close to 200 years.

This week's violence, leading to injuries to more than 80 police officers, looks like the ancient pattern continuing to assert itself. Yet there have been advances and improvements, and for once there is cause to hope that old moulds can be broken. For one thing, the once widespread turbulence is now confined to a few flashpoints. A decade and a half ago, things were so bad that a former Chief Constable warned: "We cannot withstand another summer like this one. We crept right to the edge of the abyss." Civil disorder on that scale has now gone: there is no sense of apocalypse now, only exasperation that some are unable to move into the modern era. For another thing, the basic sectarian grammar has significantly changed. Sinn Fein and Peter Robinson's Democratic Unionists, who together in effect run Northern Ireland, have in recent months been pitched into high-pressure marching talks.

After all their years of often bad-tempered confrontation on the issue, the two parties surprisingly but commendably emerged with an agreement on how to improve marching regulations. Not everyone has yet signed up for their formula but the fact that the two biggest political players finally see eye to eye is a major breakthrough. But these things take time, and the proposed new system was not in place for the present marching season. It is understandable that the police should be exasperated at the glacial pace of change, given the injuries to 80 of their officers. But the next 12 months will bring something to break the ancient, destructive paradigm.

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