By Anne Cadwallader and Jack Holland
PORTADOWN, Co. Armagh — This year’s controversial Orange Order march at Drumcree, near Portadown, in County Armagh, passed off relatively peacefully on Sunday, when for the fourth year in a row the Northern Ireland Parades Commission banned it from marching along the nationalist Garvaghy Road.
An estimated 2,000 soldiers and police stood behind barricades, rolls of razor wire and a water-filled moat to block the Orange marchers from passing along the road, which passes a Catholic housing estate.
Petrol bombs, fireworks, stones and bottles thrown were thrown at British troops and RUC men, but nothing like the same violence as in previous years, although Northern Ireland remains tense in the run-up to the main July 12 Orange parade in Belfast, where sectarian confrontations have been occurring over the last two weeks.
At the last minute, members of the Portadown District of the Order, which has been refusing to talk with the Garvaghy Road Residents Association, offered to meet with the organization in a civic forum, but only if an agreement to allow the march to proceed was reached beforehand.
However, this did not satisfy the Northern Ireland Parades Commission, which, after considering the offer, upheld the ban.
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The huge steel barricade was opened briefly to allow the Orangemen to verbally protest to an RUC officer after attending their World War I commemorative church service.
About a thousand Orangemen marched out from the center of Portadown, past St. John’s Catholic chapel at one end of the Garvaghy Road, and into the countryside to their Church of Ireland venue.
Orange Order leaders appealed for calm, and were praised for doing so by the RUC, politicians and churchmen.
On the barricade separating them from the Garvaghy Road area, they hung posters telling Catholics to "oppose your pervert priests, not our parade" and portraying SDLP assemblywoman Brid Rodgers as a "wicked witch" and a "mad cow" and accusing RUC men of being "Fenian lovers."
Orange district secretary Nigel Dawson told the RUC officer who came to a door in the barrier, flanked by guards in riot gear, to "remove this great obscenity and let us make our way back to the Orange Hall by the route we have taken for over 200 years."
Portadown district master Harold Gracey pledged that the protest at Drumcree would continue until the Orangemen marched down the Garvaghy Road, and he hit out at the loyalist Royal Black Preceptory.
The "Blackmen," a higher-ranking loyal order than the Orange Order, have begun dialogue in Derry with nationalist residents to reach an accommodation over its annual August parade.
The Orange Order has a policy of no engagement with nationalist residents groups or with the Parades Commission, and Gracey said of the Black Preceptory: "I don’t think they have done the Orange Order any favors."
Robert Saulters, the grand master of the Orange Order, joined the Orangemen at Drumcree. He spoke of the frustration felt at the "injustice meted out" by the Parades Commission and their "cowardly and craven appeasement of republicanism."
He said the Orangemen’s offer of a civic forum could have been the way forward. The offer, originally made 18 months ago, put the agreement to walk before the talking, which is unacceptable to the Catholic residents.
He said the nationalist residents were, ostensibly, opposed the Orangemen’s right to walk down a few hundred yards of road, but were in fact "striving to obliterate our culture and tradition."
He said the Orangmen’s rights were being denied and in the days ahead an international campaign would be mounted to win back those rights. They had been given "a slap in the face" this year, he said, while those who opposed them had been given "a pat on the back" for supporting "genocide and apartheid."