By John Kelly
The thunder of the Lambeg drum in Northern Ireland overshadows all other events on this island. Local council, European Parliament elections and a constitutional referendum pale in significance to the possibility that the peace process may be trodden to pieces beneath the marching feet of the Orange Order.
What British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Dublin counterpart, Bertie Ahern, do next is critical. Their options are all narrow and all risky. But they have to choose.
And there is only one path they can take. They have to face down the Orange Order, the opportunist politicians who support it and the bullyboys who provide its Fascist muscle. Otherwise, any possibility of the introduction of real democracy in the North will lie dead and buried.
The facts are there for all to see. The danger is starkly outlined. In the last 10 weeks, loyalist violence has been steadily increasing both in scope and in degree. It was inevitable that somebody would be killed. It is miraculous that more have not.
There has been at least one pipe bomb attack somewhere in Northern Ireland every week since the start of the New Year. The last to die was 59-year-old Elizabeth O’Neill. The blast bomb was thrown through the window of her home in the Corcrain estate in Portadown, a town that is virtually controlled by loyalist terror gangs in the run-up to the expected clash at the nearby Drumcree church.
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A device similar to the loyalist bomb that killed O’Neill was planted outside of a Catholic primary school in Ballymena, Co. Antrim, the heartland of the Rev. Ian Paisley’s political fiefdom. It is almost impossible to conceive of the type of mentality and the depth of hatred that would drive a human being to attempt to kill children just because they happen to follow a different religious tradition.
In fairness to Paisley, he roundly condemned the attack and said that such "activists" are not wanted in the north Antrim village.
The danger is that violence will rise to such a crescendo as to force nationalists to retaliate. You can be quite sure that there are many within the Provisional IRA who feel that retaliation should have been already carried out. If that thinking holds sway, the peace process is as good as dead.
This is precisely what loyalist extremists are aiming to achieve. The pattern of events is almost entirely predictable. Whenever peace threatens to break out as the result of a mutually acceptable settlement between loyalists and nationalists, atrocities are committed.
The point is that extreme loyalists regard any settlement as surrender. Not alone do they not want a settlement; they will fight with all of the hatred at their command to ensure that no members of Sinn Fein will ever sit in government. For them, that would be the most final and unacceptable settlement of all.
Whatever about the official condemnations of such violence by members of the Orange Order, the fact is that the institution itself encourages such violence and engenders such hatred because it is intrinsically and often violently anti-Catholic. A brief glance at any of its various oaths will suffice to prove that to any objective observer.
Essentially, there is little difference between the Order and an extremist right wing organization such as the National Front in the UK. In fact, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the dangerously racist and sectarian bullyboys who represent the unacceptable face of British Fascism see the Order as a natural haven for their tortured psychosis.
Within the North, there are many decent Orangemen who would be repelled by such a comparison. They do not regard it as being fascist in any way. They regard it as a perfectly acceptable proclamation of their unique brand of Protestantism. They cannot comprehend that the particular form of that expression is deeply offensive to almost one half of the population of the North.
They will brook no comparison to demonstrations staged by the likes of the National Front against blacks or other ethnic minorities within the UK. Many would be opposed to such demonstrations, ignorant of the nationalist perception of their annual marches as expressions of domination and hatred.
And while they continue to loudly proclaim their allegiance to the British government and all things British, they ignore the various British laws against the racism their Order practices.
So, what can Blair and Ahern do to prevent mass violence sparked by Drumcree? For that matter, what can Northern First Minister David Trimble do?
His position as a member of the Orange Order is particularly invidious. A few short years ago, he stirred a major controversy on his stance in favor of a highly controversial and dangerous Orange attempt to march down the Garvaghy Road.
Now he has to realize that his position is totally different. He is the first minister of Northern Ireland. Not only does he occupy such a critical position; he has also been honored with a Nobel Peace Prize.
As first minister, he has to make it clear that he represents all of the people of the North, not loyalists alone. He also has to recognize that 71 percent of the people of the North, in common with the overwhelming majority of the people of the entire island, favor the peace process. Anything that threatens the Good Friday agreement is a total negation of democracy.
His only option is to uphold the law and to condemn any attempt by the Orange Order to march down the Garvaghy Road, contrary to the edict of the Parades Commission and the mutual agreement between nationalists and the Order.
Equally, both prime ministers have no option, other than to oppose any such attempt with all of the force, moral and otherwise, at their command.
All responsible politicians have to face up to the fact that the Drumcree build-up is the single most dangerous threat to peace on this island. They also have to firmly oppose the lunatic loyalists who attempt to kill Catholic children in a village like Ballymena, the same people who did kill an innocent mother as she attempted to sling out the bomb thrown into her Portadown home.
As one of her two sons asked, his voice choking with grief, is any seven-minute march worth the life of Elizabeth O’Neill?
It was not. Neither is it worth one more death.
That is the reality that all of the politicians concerned with developments on this island have to face.