How Ulster marched into a new crisis

Dr Mowlam has every reason to be disappointed that no deal was reached to prevent the Portadown parade going ahead
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So where do we go from here? Mo Mowlam made no attempt, speaking on the steps of Stormont Castle yesterday, to disguise the extent to which the Orangemen's march through Garvaghy Road, Portadown, on Sunday, had been a setback to her hopes of making political progress in Northern Ireland.

After 36 hours of widespread reactive violence in nationalist areas it still is not possible to forecast, and may not be at least until the scheduled 12 July Orange parades in Derry and Belfast this Saturday, the level of conflict on the streets over the next few weeks. But Dr Mowlam has every reason to be as disappointed as she said she was yesterday that no deal was reached to prevent the Portadown parade from going ahead.

For the benefits of the march not going ahead were precisely those that ministers and officials had spelt out with such conviction to the Portadown Orangemen and any of their allies who would listen during the days before 6 July. The Orangemen were warned, for example, that by insisting on the march they would be walking into "an IRA trap"; that if the march took place it would harden support for Sinn Fein, as it clearly has done, and that for the march to go ahead was therefore precisely what the provisionals wanted. They were warned starkly - and by a range of figures which included one or two senior Conservative politicians - that insistence on the march might endanger not only peace, but also, if the province slid into anarchy, possibly in the longer term the very preservation of the Union they profess as their most cherished objective. In addition, it was pointed out to the Orangemen that it would significantly improve their own standing to waive their right to march; by being seen as magnanimous they would have acquired a new store of political capital to invest in the future. Conversely, if they went ahead, they would be seen not to be standing loyally by the UK government when such loyalty was supposed to be their raison d'etre. Finally, at Friday night's meeting at Lurgan, she even promised the Orangemen that they could have their parade at a date later in the year. And agreed to put that in writing.

Thanks to the document unearthed by David McKittrick, it is now clear that the Government recognised as early as 20 June that there was little hope of a deal; but whether to be able to say she had tried everything, or because she still had flickering hopes, or both, she did not give up.

She was given conspicuously little help from leaders of the two main Unionist Parties. David Trimble, whose high-profile support for the Drumcree march in 1995 may have helped to secure him the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party, insisted on Friday that the march should go ahead. But there were other voices urging moderation on the Portadown men - most strikingly a bravely unequivocal leading article on Saturday in the pro- Unionist Newsletter, which urged the Orangemen to waive their right to march. Surely Dr Mowlam could have cited these allies, banning the march and making simultaneously public all the efforts she had made to persuade the Orangemen to do voluntarily with honour what she now felt bound to oblige them to do by force of law?

That sounds quite persuasive; though it's now clear that allowing the march with conditions was thought to be a likely option on 20 June. But Government sources remain adamant that the final decision for the march to go ahead was Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan's alone, and that it is a complete misunderstanding to think that there was some form of "negotiation" between him and Dr Mowlam. Suggestions that Mr Flanagan wanted a ban and Dr Mowlam didn't are utterly dismissed; on the contrary, while there appears to have been no disagreement between the two, any difference of emphasis is likely to have been the other around. The sources argue also that the risk assessments of the security forces had to take account of daily changing circumstances; but when it came to it, Mr Flanagan's view was that the balance on public safety grounds, both because of the risk of sectarian attacks on Catholics by loyalist paramilitaries and because of a stand-off at Drumcree like the one that built up last year, was in favour of the march going ahead. While the two main paramilitary loyalist groups are - in notable contrast to Sinn Fein - maintaining their ceasefire, a breakaway group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, present in Portadown, is not. In any case, the threat of a stand-off at Drumcree - and possibly attendant loyalist violence across northern Ireland - appears to have impressed ministers.

In theory, Dr Mowlam could have taken the very bold step of deciding under Section Five of the Public Order Act to overrule the advice of the security force chiefs and ban the march on grounds that were, effectively, political. But there would have been grave risks for a government in doing that; perhaps particularly grave for a Labour government. Dr Mowlam and Tony Blair, who was in fairly constant touch with his Northern Ireland Secretary over the past few days, would have been going against the security advice given at the highest level. Suppose subsequently there had been RUC men killed, or at least that reprisals had been taken against them by loyalists in the communities they come from and there had been a subsequent collapse in RUC morale. It would have made a vital relationship, that between Dr Mowlam and Mr Flanagan, extremely difficult to sustain.

The immediate consequences nevertheless were looking bleak last night. It is hard to overestimate the uphill struggle Dr Mowlam will have in reconnecting with ordinary nationalist opinion. It's no doubt easy to dismiss those who shouted out "no ceasefire" as the march passed, or threw stones at the departing troops after the parade was over, as naive young men easily manipulated by active republicans. When Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams call for street protests they know exactly what the consequences will be. But on the Garvaghy road on Sunday it was also possible to speak to respectable working-class women of late middle age who would no more think of throwing a stone or beating a dustbin lid or shouting obscenities than of going to Mars - and who were almost rigid with disappointment, frustration and anger as the march went through.

With her typical energy, Dr Mowlam threw herself yesterday into a fresh round of meetings designed to avert a fresh crisis at the weekend. It seems almost inconceivable that having been allowed to march at Portadown through Garvaghy road, the Orangemen will be allowed down the Ormeau road in Belfast on Saturday. But she is going to have her work cut out for many months after that.