There is a way out of this ritualised annual deadlock at Drumcree

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It is that time of year again. Violence at Drumcree, on the edge of the mainly Protestant town of Portadown. Mayhem in parts of Belfast, where shattered glass and burnt-out vehicles litter the streets. Residents who have become all too wearily familiar with violence in the past three decades stay behind closed doors to shut out the lunatic chaos.

It is that time of year again. Violence at Drumcree, on the edge of the mainly Protestant town of Portadown. Mayhem in parts of Belfast, where shattered glass and burnt-out vehicles litter the streets. Residents who have become all too wearily familiar with violence in the past three decades stay behind closed doors to shut out the lunatic chaos.

The Orange parades - and attempted parades - in Portadown have had a dismal track record in recent years. This year has been no different. A (Protestant) mob hurled firecrackers and rocks and squirted acid at the (mostly Protestant) police who tried to keep them away from the nationalist enclave that is the Garvaghy Road. There has been gunfire, too, and there is a good chance that there will be yet more violence as the week goes on.

As ever in Northern Ireland, however, it is easy to miss the wood because of all the dark trees. The head of the Portadown Orange lodge, Harold Gracey, has seemed happy to stoke the fires. Crucially, however, the intransigence has not met with widespread Protestant applause, as would once have been the case.

Gradually - and it could not be otherwise; to have expected the change to happen overnight would have been absurd - Protestants have begun to learn that an absolute "no surrender" attitude means that they lose more than if they offer nuggets of compromise. The virtuous circle of compromise is by no means complete. None the less, the progress in recent months has been clear. The Unionists now regularly talk to Sinn Fein, while on the nationalist side, the IRA have finally begun to deliver on their promise to put weapons beyond use.

All this is underpinned by the growing acknowledgement on the part of both communities that movement for the other side is painful. Tony Holland, the impressive chairman of the Parades Commission, points out that the issue at Drumcree is not competing rights or interests (though it may sometimes seem that way), but competing identities. Orangemen are determined to maintain their traditions, and believe that any restraint on their right to march is an affront to those traditions and thus to their identity. The nationalists on Garvaghy Road feel, in Mr Holland's phrase, "isolated and under siege", because the marches are seen as "provocative and devoid of any respect for the community on which they impinge".

The commission has offered what it calls a road map for the immediate future. The most important point about that road map is the implication that it leads towards a future and not into a political cul-de-sac. Just a few years ago, compromise on either side seemed unthinkable. It was a question of Them or Us; the possibility of finding a middle way on the Portadown marching season seemed as ludicrous as the suggestion that (to take an obviously unreal example) the IRA might one day allow inspectors to examine and seal up an IRA arms dump.

The commission, while banning Sunday's march, dangled the possibility that marches may be possible in the months to come, if both sides learn not to provoke the other. It still sounds like fantasy; many on the streets of Portadown would insist that it is fantasy. But we must not allow ourselves to forget how many utopian fantasies have in the past few years become real. In short: optimism still has a future.

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