By Anne Cadwallader
Fears are mounting that Northern Ireland’s marching season, which has been relatively peaceful so far, could plunge into violence this weekend.
Fueling the fears is a controversial decision by the Northern Ireland Parades Commission to allow an Apprentice Boys march through the nationalist Lower Ormeau Road area in Belfast this Saturday morning for the first time in four years.
The decision has angered local residents, who plan to stage a rally starting Friday night and continuing into Saturday.
Rally organizers said Tuesday the protest would be "peaceful and dignified but determined and effective." However, a large RUC presence is expected.
The commission’s ruling on the Ormeau Road parade has effectively ended any chance of compromise in the city of Derry itself, where the main Apprentice Boys parade is due to take place, also this Saturday, hours after the parade through the Ormeau Road.
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Many of those who take part in the Ormeau Road parade are expected to board buses to take part in the subsequent parade in Derry.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday in Derry, Bogside Residents Group spokesman Donncha MacNiallais said he hoped the Apprentice Boys would celebrate their tradition and culture in a manner which respects everyone’s rights. But the BRG was also determined to secure for small, isolated and beleaguered nationalist communities, such as the Lower Ormeau, the right to live free from imposed sectarian parades and harassment.
"The Parades Commission decision has, at a stroke, destroyed our ability to deliver on these objectives," he said. "We cannot see how we will be able to deliver an agreement on this year’s parade if the Apprentice Boys go ahead with their parade in Belfast.
"In our view the decision of the parades commission was reckless, ill thought out and has undermined our efforts to broker a long-term agreement with the Apprentice Boys which could have led to a resolution of all outstanding issues, including that of feeder parades, such as the Lower Ormeau Road."
The commission said it made its decision on the parade through the Ormeau Road area because the Apprentice Boys had begun "meaningful dialogue" with the nationalist residents group, but Gerard Rice, the spokesperson for Lower Ormeau Concerned Community, said the Apprentice Boys’ involvement was meaningless unless the group tried to find a local resolution to the dispute.
The Parades Commission, however, said talks involving both sides were not a cosmetic exercise but "a substantive, sustained and genuine engagement over a period of months" and that it had seen the minutes of the meetings that proved it was a "detailed and quality process."
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, has put forward new proposals in an attempt to resolve the Drumcree parade dispute, which has seen loyalists lay siege to Portadown’s nationalist enclave for more than a year.
The proposals, which include face-to-face talks, to be chaired by a British government minister, were raised during separate meetings with representatives from both side.
However, David Jones, spokesman for the Protestant Orange Order, quickly ruled out face-to-face talks with the town’s Catholic community.
"The district officers will not be having any contact with the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition; we have made that quite plain from the start," he said. "We are still on the hill at Drumcree, we remain at the hill until the matter is resolved and we believe the matter will be resolved in August. . . . We see this as being the end of the process,"
But GRRC spokesman Breandan MacCionnaith said: " The David Joneses and the Harold Graceys are going to have to sit down face-to-face with the people of the Garvaghy Road."
Earlier, he welcomed a "realization" by the British government that indirect "proximity" talks between the Orange Order and residents had failed.
"I think it is fair to say that there is a realization on the part of the government and an acceptance of what we have been saying for a long time, that the proximity talks format is a failed format and the governments will examine other ways of how to move us into direct talks with the Orange Order," MacCionnaith said.
"We have always said this is a whole question of equality and showing respect and dignity to each other and the Orange Order is going to have to take the step of sitting down face to face with us."
Yesterday’s meeting was Powell’s fourth attempt to end the standoff at Drumcree. In July 1998, he chaired proximity talks in Armagh, using nationalist and loyalist intermediaries, but failed to find a solution.
He renewed his efforts last December and again in June, but these also failed.