By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST – The peace settlement stakes were raised even higher this week when the British prime minister, Tony Blair, personally blocked the release of the Parades Commission’s initial report on which Orange marches should be allowed to proceed.
It is believed that the Commission, supposedly independent of the British government, had ruled in secret that the annual Orange march along Garvaghy Road in Portadown be rerouted, along with a number of other marches.
But UUP leader, David Trimble, telephoned Blair’s parliamentary private secretary, expressing his concern at the decision, and the 7,000-word report was postponed.
The marching season has traditionally been a time of flaring tensions as parades mark the remembrance of historic battles between Catholics and Protestants. With the May 22 referendum on the Belfast Agreement drawing near, there are renewed fears that marches could spark violent clashes and jeopardize the settlement.
Two loyalist figures on the commission, ex-UDA man Glen Barr and Apprentice Boy Tommy Cheevers, immediately resigned, insisting this had nothing to do with the Garvaghy Road recommendation. Other observers, however, drew different conclusions.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
The Commission was accused of caving in to Unionist pressure after the blueprint was ditched. A press conference was canceled and instead the two loyalist commissioners resigned.
The incident has cut into the commission’s already fragile credibility as it will now have to search for new loyalist members, three having now resigned. Nationalist residents’ groups claimed the “Orange card” had been played, and the Orange Order said the decision vindicated its refusal to speak to the commission.
Trimble said he would be “amazed” if this year’s Drumcree/Garvaghy Road march is banned and said it would be a “sign of normality” if it went ahead. People in the area are meeting this week to decide whether to invite supporters along on July 5 to block the road.
Observers also fear trouble could be looming at the annual “Tour of the North” parade in North Belfast. This biennial Orange parade, suspended for years after a three-hour gun battle followed it in the 1970s, sparked trouble in 1996 and could do so again this June 16.
Meanwhile both the “Yes” and “No” campaigns took off like rockets in Ireland last week with all indications pointing to a fiercely contested four-week battle.
The Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, said the vote on the Good Friday Belfast Agreement would have to be carried by 60 percent to 40 to have any credibility. The SDLP predicted a large turnout in the North and the “No” campaigners said they would win the day.
Three MPs in Trimble’s party (Roy Beggs, William Thompson and Willie Ross) appeared at a rally in the Ulster Hall alongside the DUP leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, and UK Unionist leader, Robert McCartney.
The DUP claims 56 percent of Unionists (a combination of UUP, DUP and UKUP) are opposed to the deal, and that more are coming on board as they read the agreement. Others say the “No” campaign has peaked too early and this week will see a vigorous fightback.
The UDP, linked to the paramilitary UDA, said the “No” campaign was leading nowhere, with spokesman David Adams saying rejection could result in an unprecedented level of violence, predicting an “apocalyptic sense of hopelessness.”
The UDA, meanwhile, came out this week in support of the deal, claiming it could never lead to a united Ireland and that the union with Britain is safe. The UDA said 30 years of IRA violence had failed.
The DUP had predicted a total British Army withdrawal by October, although a bug, discovered in the home of senior republican Gerry Kelly showed the old mindset is still rigidly in place.
Already one mystery group had spent l10,000 advertising in favor of a negative vote in the two Belfast unionist newspapers, the Newletter and the Telegraph. The group, calling itself only the “Silent Majority,” claimed it would be “suicidal” to vote “Yes”.
Sinn Fein set May 10th for its special ard fheis to decide whether to support the Good Friday Agreement, although party president, Gerry Adams, has already predicted it will be approved in both parts of Ireland.
Adams met with both the taoiseach and the British prime minister during the week, coming out of both meetings saying the union was “weakened” and the agreement was an advance for Nationalists.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP’s battle to get root-and-branch reform of the RUC was also dealt a blow this week with its chief constable, Ronnie Flanagan, signaling he would fight to the end to defense the force.
Flanagan said the RUC had been a “bulwark between anarchy and disorder” and spoke of his “wonderment” at the proposed mass release of prisoners. He claimed the commission’s inquire into the RUC was politically-motivated.
In an interview published in the pro-union, Conservative Daily Telegraph, Flanagan said the RUC’s “operational independence” must not be undermined and that his officers had faced a “bombardment of propaganda” in recent years.
Better news for the process arrived with the announcement that five republican prisoners are to be transferred to jails in the Republic. The “Balcombe Street Four” and Paul Magee are to be rehoused in Portlaoise.
Hugh Doherty, Joe O’Connell, Eddie Butler and Henry Duggan have already served morw than 22 years in jail in Britain after their convictions for a string of shootings and bombings in London and elsewhere.
A dispute is growing, however, over whether Sinn Fein members will be allowed to sit as ministers in the power-sharing executive before the IRA has handed over any weapons.
The UUP is insisting that no person will be able to serve as a minister before actual decommissioning, and that all IRA weapons must be handed over before two years has elapsed.
Blair said in the House of Commons it would be a “travesty of democracy if parties associated with paramilitaries held executive office in the assembly while they continued to be engaged in or threaten terrorism.”