News Analysis: Orangemen ready to march - but will they have to retreat once again?

People of Northern Ireland wait in trepidation as loyalists are forced to scale down their parades through flashpoint Catholic areas

Northern Ireland is pre-paring for the annual loyalist marching season with a mixture of hope for a reasonably quiet time and apprehension that the parades could easily aggravate disputes.

The police and Army will at several points be at full stretch policing the 3,000-plus loyalist parades all over Northern Ireland in July and August.

The first severe test of whether disorder is to be expected will come on Sunday when Orangemen in the Co Armagh town of Portadown gather at the parish church of Drumcree. For the fifth year in succession they have been forbidden to walk along the Catholic Garvaghy Road.

While the Drumcree dispute almost led to a breakdown of law and order in 1996, it has faded as a big issue, with local Orangemen fatalistically having to accept the ban has become as traditional as the march.

The issue has also settled down in most parts of Northern Ireland, though everyone is uneasily aware the potential remains for dangerous flare-ups, with local clashes prone to spreading to other districts.

The overall picture is that in recent years the Orange Order has generally lost on the question of contentious marches. Catholic residents groups have prevailed with their argument that loyalists should not march where they are not wanted.

This represents a huge change in the political landscape. It contrasts remarkably with the pattern, which prevailed until the mid-Nineties, that loyalist marches usually got through.

The new situation can be attributed to the growth of the Catholic population's numbers and assertiveness, and to a lack of flexibility on the part of the Orange Order. In particular, the order's refusal to enter dialogue with Catholics has proved fatal to its attempts to march in disputed areas.

The last Drumcree march to be let through was in 1997. Similarly, years have passed since a parade was allowed through the Catholic Lower Ormeau district of south Belfast. Such decisions are made by the Parades Commission, set up by the Government to adjudicate on marching disputes. The commission lays great emphasis on the need for dialogue between residents and marchers, encouraging them to reach agreed solutions.

The Orange Order, particularly in Portadown, refuses to talk directly to Catholics or the commission, which means the commission's decisions steadily go against it. The order disapproves of the commission's existence, and has tried other means to get its way, such as direct approaches to Tony Blair.

At one point, the order hoped that European human rights law would support its cause. But in similar disputes in other countries, European judges almost invariably ruled in favour of residents rather than marchers.

The order continues to make the tactical mistake of elevating opposition to dialogue to almost its central principle. In doing so, it continually stokes the suspicion that, at root, its marches are an assertion of Protestant supremacy over nationalists.

Spirited efforts by an international mediator, Brian Currin of South Africa, were unsuccessful, with the Portadown Orangemen holding fast to their anti-dialogue position. The commission's basic stance has been that no dialogue means no march.

The commission is under attack from political Unionism, with David Trimble, Northern Ireland's First Minister, calling both for its abolition and for the Drumcree march to be allowed through. At his insistence, the commission's role is being reviewed.

The Government is thought to be unlikely to scrap a body regarded as having made an important contribution to recent, progressively less disruptive marching seasons.

The commission is seen as having brought a useful degree of systematic regulation to what had been largely ad hoc and often fraught last-minute decision making. Above all, the authorities will not favour tossing responsibility back to the Government and the police.

The exception to the general stalemate has been the city of Londonderry, where the loyalist Apprentice Boys of Derry have engaged in dialogue with Catholics. This stance, which is seen as a pragmatic recognition of the fact that Londonderry has a substantial Catholic majority, has succeeded in almost defusing marching controversies in the city.

At Drumcree, by contrast, the absence of dialogue means the security forces have become more and more proficient in developing formidable physical defences of metal structures, barbed wire and large numbers of soldiers and police to enforce the ban.

The annual Drumcree stand-off steadily lost the support of many Protestants when paramilitary elements associated themselves with the protest. Notorious loyalist assassins such as Billy "King Rat" Wright and Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair appeared at Drumcree, increasing the sense of menace but alienating more respectable elements.Middle-class Protestants in particular recoiled from the sight of loyalists shooting and aiming dangerous fireworks at police, and were appalled by the virtual paralysis of Northern Ireland for days in particularly bad years.

The expectation that Drumcree will be banned every year now causes no surprise and little of the previous sense of loyalist outrage. Some controversial marches have been called off by the marchers, apparently dispirited by repeated bans. Garvaghy residents have characterised the Drumcree dispute as "dying on its feet" and the commission has noted that "the appetite for protest is dwindling".

In the broader context, this fits into the common perception among Protestants that their community's rights and interests are steadily being eroded. Seen in this light, the development can be viewed as one of many reasons for Unionist political disillusion.

The drop in Protestant morale may have increased apathy among most Unionists, but it can also produce a violent backlash from tougher loyalist elements, as seen in recent rioting in north and east Belfast.

Some of the thousands of parades will be close to those riot areas, where tensions remain high. In such flashpoints serious trouble can result from minor incidents, or rumour.

This led one security source to say: "This year Drumcree may be in Belfast." Most people are facing the marching season with nervousness rather than the previous dread of widespread disturbances.

Deep roots - why they march

* The marching season has its roots in the victory of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, which confirmed Protestant supremacy in Ireland.

* The 12 July parades mark the date he defeated the forces of the Catholic King James II, whom he had deposed from the English throne two years earlier. The modern phenomenon of parades began 10 months after the formation of the Loyal Orange Institution in 1795, near Portadown.

* Between Easter and the end of September, more than 3,500 marches are held in Northern Ireland. While nearly all are Unionist marches, republican parades are usually routed through Catholic areas and recognise aspects of the struggle against British control.

* The formation of the Orange Order was followed by that of the Apprentice Boys of Derry in the 1850s, named after the 13 apprentices who closed the gates of the city against James II's forces. The annual Apprentice Boys parade is held on 12 August to mark the relief of the siege of Derry in 1689.

* For years, the Catholic population of Northern Ireland took holidays to avoid what the Protestants claim is an expression of heritage and culture. Catholic opposition has grown more strident in recent years to what nationalists see as an annual exhibition of triumphalism and intimidation.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments