Leading Article: Difficult footsteps on the road to compromise

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Last year, this newspaper condemned the decision first to block the marchers at Drumcree and then to let them go ahead after a three-day stand-off between police and the Orange mob. Sir Hugh Annesley, then the chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, had given in to intimidation. It was a victory for might over the rule of law.

This year's return fixture was always going to be one of the stiffest tests faced by the new government. On the face of it, it seems that the Prime Minister and Mo Mowlam have decided to give in straightaway rather than wait three days. That may have the advantage of looking less weak, but is it not essentially the same cowardly decision? Certainly, something is very wrong when a police chief in the United Kingdom takes a decision on the grounds that it will subject a group of our citizens to "minimum violence". Those were the unfortunate words chosen by Sir Hugh's successor, Ronnie Flanagan, announcing the decision yesterday and apologising rather inelegantly for it to the residents of the Garvaghy Road. In fact, the main violence suffered by the Tricolour-waving, dustbin-lid-banging residents was the bruising of their nationalist sympathies. Mr Flanagan was inadvertently speaking of the real calculation behind the decision: that there would be violence in Northern Ireland whatever the decision, but by allowing the march to go ahead there would be less violence than if it were re- routed. This was, in other words, a pragmatic judgement of the balance of terror.

The calculation that nationalist anger would be easier to contain than loyalist anger sends a dangerous message. It says to republican extremists that they are not capable of causing enough trouble - despite the fact that it is the IRA which seems most intent on pursuing violence and snubbing the Government's overtures. It also says to loyalists that the air of menace, cloaked in respectability, with which they got their own way at Drumcree last year will go on producing results.

But there is one important difference this year. Last year, Sir Hugh made a decision and was forced to change it by the threat of violence. This year, Mr Flanagan made a decision and it was carried through. The real outrage last year lay in the flouting of the law. To the extent that yesterday's decision was made only to pre-empt intimidation, it should be criticised. The hard question remains whether it was right initially to stop the march last year or to let it go ahead this year.

The question is difficult to answer partly because the march itself cannot possibly matter to anyone who does not invest it with its full tribal meanings. In any other part of the UK, who would care if an orderly crowd of people walked down a road wearing funny clothes and hats? But then, in any other part of the UK, if some of the people who lived in a road did say they found the funny clothes and hats offensive because they thought they were insulting to their religion or cultural identity, the police would persuade the parade to take a detour.

However, this is Northern Ireland, and most of the stuff about the right to march and the Battle of the Boyne and the injustice of Partition is just a smoke-screen to conceal the ugly fact that here are two groups of people who dislike and distrust each other. One group thinks the right to march where they have always marched is central to their cultural identity, while the other thinks it cheapens and belittles theirs. Both are right, but neither can be allowed to prevail totally over the other. Yesterday, the balance was tipped too far in favour of the loyalists. But if the march had been re-routed against their will, it would have been tipped too far against them. That might only be fair, given the historic and enduring (but diminishing) slights suffered by the nationalists. But it would not be the basis for a lasting solution.

A possible way forward was proposed by Robert Saulters, grand master of the Orange Order, who suggested that the loyalists should assert their right to march down the Garvaghy Road but should choose not to exercise it. At first blush, this sounds like the inverted logic of Catch-22. But it is time for the loyalists to make a crazy gesture, "a voluntary non- exercise of acknowledged rights" as John Bruton, the former Irish prime minister called it.

The key word is "voluntary", and a workable compromise would involve the Orangemen of Portadown making a large - even Christian - gesture. Judging by the hand-washing of the minister of Drumcree parish church yesterday, this will be difficult. He told BBC Radio that his responsibility ended at the door of his church, and that what his congregation got up to after the service was nothing to do with him. You can be a member of any denomination or none and find this interpretation of the teaching of the Bible perverse.

As ever, progress in Northern Ireland depends on the concept of consent, and consent is difficult to procure from tribes as implacably opposed as Northern Ireland's are. The early optimism engendered by Mr Blair's offer to Sinn Fein of a fresh start was soon dashed by renewed IRA violence. And last night's rioting looked like a slide backwards into fear and loathing. But there is no alternative to patiently plodding on. Mr Blair and Ms Mowlam are heading in the right direction. The Prime Minister's apology over the Irish famine was designed to stroke nationalist feeling, while yesterday's decision does at least buy some breathing space in the long process of breaking down loyalist mistrust. Slowly, the political and economic incentives have to be put in place to reduce the rewards to extremism and increase those to compromise.