By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST – Plastic bullets, petrol bombs and serious rioting flared on the Garvaghy Road in Portadown last weekend, five weeks before this year’s contentious Orange march.
At least four resdients were treated in hospital with plastic bullet injuries. One was taken to intensive care with chest injuries, another was hit on the head.
Ten police officers were injured, none seriously. The RUC claimed a woman officer was injured in a blast-bomb attack, but this was denied by residents, who said only firecrackers were initially thrown.
There are increasingly serious concerns about what will take place on July 5 when 1,000 members of the Portadown Orange lodge want to march the length of the Garvaghy Road.
Residents of the largely Nationalist neighborhood are still angry after the march was forced through last year, when the area was swamped at dead of night by hundreds of RUC men in black riot gear who beat protesters off the road.
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The Parades Commission, appointed by the British government to arbitrate on such marches, says that a rerun of last year’s events is not an option. It has not, as yet, said what its alternative is.
It’s believed the commission has already decided the parade should be rerouted away from nationalist areas, but its report was postponed by the British prime minister, Tony Blair, after intervention by David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader and local MP.
It’s thought that Blair and Trimble feared that, had the report’s re-routing recommendation become known in advance of May 22’s referendum vote on the Belfast Agreement, outraged Unionist opinion would have resulted in a “No” vote to the deal, which passed overwhelmingly.
Saturday night’s violence broke out as junior Orangemen, returning from an annual band parade in North Down, arrived on the Garvaghy Road. What happened next is the source of contradictory reports from the RUC and residents.
Residents say the Orangemen, and their hangers-on, were at first held back for half an hour by a large force of RUC officers, who then allowed them through. They ripped down Irish tricolors on the road and shouted slogans, it is claimed.
RUC officials say officers were trying to keep residents and marchers apart when they were subjected to a well-orchestrated attack from petrol and blast-bombers. Rocks and other debris were thrown at them, they say.
A residents’ spokesman, Brendan MacCionnaith, denied there were any explosive devices on the road. He says only a couple of fireworks were thrown at police, unjustifiably, and petrol bombs were only thrown after an unprovoked police baton charge.
What followed was six hours of sporadic rioting that left the area tense in both communities. In subsequent intercommunity violence, houses in both Catholic and Protestant houses were attacked by youths.
Stormont Minister Adam Ingram, himself an Orangeman for a short period in his teens, said the actions of protesters against the parade were “deliberately destructive and unacceptable.”
McCionnaith briefed Irish government officials after the weekend’s violence, asking them to intercede with the RUC to prevent more plastic bullets being fired during the marching season.
In another development, the hard-line spirit of Drumcree group within the Orange Order has expelled one of its leading members after he agreed a compromise route for an Orange parade in Dunloy, Co. Antrim.
A compromise route was agreed in Dunloy 10 days ago, allowing an Apprentice Boys parade to march to church avoiding the village center. Participating in that accommodation has cost local Orangeman John Finlay his membership of the Spirit of Drumcree group.
After the compromise, the two-year-old loyalist picket at Our Lady’s Church in Ballymena was lifted, much to parishioners’ relief. They had run a gauntlet of sectarian abuse and violence every Saturday night as they attended Mass.
Parade Commission criticized
A former founder-member of the Parades Commission, the Rev. Roy Magee (who helped broker the loyalist cease-fire) has called for its disbandment. He said it had no credibility with the Apprentice Boys and Orange Order.
A leading Orangeman has also written British Prime Minister Tony Blair asking him to scrap the commission. Like Magee, David McNarry asked Tony Blair to give the commission’s powers to a sub-committee of the new Northern Assembly.
He said Orangemen were determined to walk all their traditional routes this summer and could not surrender to those denying them their rights.
On the political front this week, the Ulster Unionist Party upheld its decision not to allow the name of dissident MP Jeffrey Donaldson to go forward as a candidate in the Assembly elections.
Donaldson has accepted its decision, but said it was a sad day for the party. His party leader, David Trimble, offered him an olive branch by inviting him to act as parliamentary spokesman on the new laws giving affect to the Belfast Agreement.
The reason given for banning Donaldson from standing is the UUP’s “one man, one job” policy – he’s already an MP. But there are more than suspicions, his stand against the Agreement did not help his case for election.
His constituency supporters refused to accept the party’s original ruling and asked the party to reverse its decision. Their request was turned down after a four-hour meeting at party headquarters.
The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, has spoken to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern about his concerns on the make-up of the Policing Commission, to be chaired by former British Conservative Party chairman, Chris Patten.
The commission is to bring forward recommendations on how a police service can be created which is acceptable to both communities in Northern Ireland, but already it has run into controversy.
Newapaper reports at the weekend claimed the British government intends to propose a list of what’s been described as “safe, establishment” figures who would produce an anodyne report, acceptable to the RUC and its Unionist defenders.
They are understood to include Sir John Smith, a former deputy Metropolitan police commissioner, Kathleen O’Toole of the Boston police department, a Canadian criminologist and a former Northern Ireland civil servant.
Adams said the Commission must have people on it who are truly independent and they should work to the remit set down in the agreement, which demanded fundamental change in the ethos, culture and make-up of the RUC.
The Commissions on Policing, Prisoners and Legal Reform should deliver the same sort of fundamental change which is required, he said, and in the shortest time possible.
Cahill vs. Paisley
On the elections front, Sinn Fein is running veteran republican and gunrunner Joe Cahill against the DUP leader, Ian Paisley, in the assembly election constituency of North Antrim.
Cahill, aged 78, Sinn Fein’s treasurer, was sentenced to hang for his part in a seige over 55 years ago that resulted in the death of an RUC man.
Another IRA man in the squad, Tom Williams, aged 19, was hanged, but Cahill and three others were spared after intervention by Eamon de Valera and the pope, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Cahill was later sentenced in 1973 for his part in an attempt to run guns for the IRA on board the “Claudia,” which was intercepted in Waterford Bay.