By Anne Cadwallader
PORTADOWN, Co. Armagh — Life in Northern Ireland came to a standstill this week as Orangemen and loyalists blocked roads and halted commercial life in protest at the earlier rerouting of the annual Drumcree march from the mainly nationalist Garvaghy Road.
The protest’s came as loyalist paramilitaries reportedly threatened to kill a Catholic very day unless the Drumcree parade is allowed through.
The crisis apparently has now broadened into a battle for the survival of the Good Friday peace agreement. Many Orange Order speakers have characterized the conflict as their last stand — their “Alamo” — against the forces supporting the agreement.
“We have no alternative except to protest after the [British] government appeased terrorists by putting them into government,” the Rev. Eric Culbertson, deputy grand chaplain of the Order, said this week.
“The police are decimated, the government has surrendered to the nationalist agenda, David Trimble’s loss of his majority at the Assembly is ignored, what other vehicle do we have?”
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Another factor in the conflict has been the involvement of the notorious loyalist Johnny “Mad Dog” Adair, who is using the uncertainty to boost his standing within the UDA, where he is a brigadier. He is anxious to link up with the LVF in opposition to the agreement. The weekend threat to kill Catholics came from UDA elements, according to the London Observer, using its cover name Ulster Freedom Fighters. On Monday, three Catholic men were fired on in the heart of nationalist districts — two in Ardoyne (North Belfast) and one on the Whiterock Road (West Belfast) — at 7:30 a.m. There have also been 13 gun attacks by loyalists on the police since July 1.
Several Catholic families were forced to leave their homes during the last week. The home of one mixed-religion couple in North Belfast was firebombed in the middle of the night. The fleeing couple said police in a nearby landrover made no attempt to intervene.
There have been fire-bomb attacks on Catholic schools and one integrated school just north of the city, as well as sporadic attacks on Orange halls in some rural areas..
In the Garvaghy Road area itself, Catholic homes came under attack several nights running. Petrol bombs and rocks were thrown at residents and their homes. At one stage, loyalists tried set fire to the warehouse at a meat plant in an apparent effort to gain access to Catholic housing.
The repeated attempts at loyalist incursions into the area meant sleepless nights for some of the 100-plus U.S., Canadian and South African international observers, who included Rep. Donald Payne, the New Jersey Democrat, who witnessed Sunday’s Orange march from a vantage point near Drumcree church.
At the beginning of the week, shop and office workers fled the main cities to get home before the blockades went up on main and minor roads in Belfast, Derry, Portadown, Coleraine, Ballymena and other towns and villages across the North.
Both Catholic and Protestant shopkeepers were forced to close early, and many do so reluctantly, after receiving anonymous phone threats believed to be from loyalist paramilitaries. Government buildings and commercial firms also closed early Monday to allow their staff to travel home safely before the four-hour shutdown that began at 4 p.m. Many did not open Tuesday or again sent employees home as the blockades continued.
Except for in and around Derry, where main roads were kept open, the RUC made no apparent attempt to remove road barricades on Monday and Tuesday, but rather diverted motorists. No plastic bullets were fired, there were no baton charges and officers wore their usual uniforms instead of riot gear.
On the main Falls Road-Shankill Road peace line, a group of men, women and children gathered as loyalists threw rocks at them to show they were ready to defend their area.
“The Orange community is in crisis, which means a very dangerous time for nationalists” Sinn Fein’s Tom Hartley said as he stood at the peace line.
Last Thursday, the Orange Order, which had refused to meet with Garvaghy Road residents, made what it called a new offer to the Parades Commission, saying it would agree to take part in a “civic forum” provided its members were first permitted to march down the Garvaghy Road.
The Order, however, said it would still refuse to speak to the nationalist residents directly and would still boycott any dialogue with the British government-appointed Parades Commission.
The Commission upheld its original ruling denying the march, saying, however, that “Portadown District has demonstrated a very real, concerned and genuine desire to find a resolution. We welcome their undertakings to cancel all rallies, protest parades and other related activities; to continue to engage with [mediator] Brian Currin . . . and to have a limited parade.”
But it added: “The problem lies in the sequence they seek, namely, a change of the determination, following which these undertakings would be implemented, in contrast to our road map which envisaged a number of events occurring before, and leading to, a parade.”
The nationalist residents said the “new” offer was merely a repeat of what the Orange Order had agreed to in 1995, and to which it reneged after being allowed to march.
This week’s paralysis came at the end of eight days of sporadic and sometimes violent protest connected to the Orange Order’s demand to march down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, without any negotiations either with the Parades Commission or with the residents themselves.
Strangely, about the only thing moving in the North on Monday evening was the daily Orange parade of protest from the center of Portadown to the church at Drumcree, through the outskirts of the Garvaghy Road area. Nationalists there are hemmed-in on all sides by massive British Army fortifications.
Portadown District Orange spokesman David Jones said tactics this week would be intermittent protests between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. each day. Most observers, however, believe it will be impossible to end protests in the evening and they are likely to continue well into the night.
On calls from the British Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson, for talks to resolve the dispute, Jones said he was a “fool” who had been discredited before he even came to the North. Jones laid the blame for any violence at the foot of the Parades Commission.
The Orange Order is to hold its main “Twelfth” parade in the Ormeau public park in South Belfast again this year in protest at a small “feeder parade” being rerouted from the nationalist Lower Ormeau Road for a second year in succession.
First Minister David Trimble has appealed for calm and says the conflict could be solved by the Order speaking to the Parades Commission. He said the gap between the Order and the Commission was only over sequencing and timing, and this could be ironed out in talks.
Strangely silent has been the DUP leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, who has made few interventions in the dispute, although his party pledged to get 30 signatures on a petition to recall the Assembly to discuss the Drumcree dispute.