By Anne Cadwallader
PORTADOWN – The British Prime Minister Tony Blair will meet with Orange leaders on Thursday in a last ditch attempt to dissuade them from continuing their protests against the blocking of the Drumcree Orange parade, near Portadown. The British government said that the meeting did not mean the Drumcree ban would be lifted.
The announcement of the meeting, which will be held in Downing Street, came a day after the Independent Parades Commission ruled that another controversial Orange parade, on July 13, along the Nationalist Lower Ormeau Road, in South Belfast, would be allowed to proceed, angering Catholic residents who in previous years have been bottled up in their streets and homes as the Orangemen marched through. But the permit to march is conditional on the Orange Order agreeing to complete their march by 8:30 a.m and to refrain from playing music.
Meanwhile, loyalist violence erupted in other parts of Northern Ireland with gun and bomb attacks on the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Belfast. In Derry, a police inspector was seriously injured when struck by a stone during a loyalist riot. As fears mount for the long-term stability of the Irish peace process, another 800 British troops have been dispatched to Northern Ireland.
The current crisis was touched off by the standoff at Drumcree church on Sunday between Orangemen and security forces, leading to widespread rioting in loyalist areas, the burning of barricades and the general disruption of life throughout Northern Ireland. As hundreds of Orangemen remained camped out at Drumcree this week, officials fear it could worsen.
The Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, has denied reports he will resign unless the Orange march at Drumcree is allowed to proceed. He admitted, however, that the peace process looked shaky and that the blocking of the parade was “a mistake.”
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The Orangemen were blocked from marching down the Nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown at lunchtime on July 5. Earlier, hundreds of British soldiers worked through the night with digging machines and bulldozers.
They erected miles of barbed wire fencing and dug an eight-foot deep trench along a narrow stream. Steel and concrete barricades now block the road from Drumcree church to the Nationalist area of Portadown, where the town’s 20 percent Catholic population lives.
Orangemen have vowed to remain at Drumcree a round the clock until the British government’s Parades Commission reverses its decision to ban them from the Garvaghy Road.
Hundreds, swelling at times to thousands, are camping out in a large field, separated from the Garvaghy Road area by the British fortifications, with marquees and tents for sleeping, food stalls and regular visits from leading loyalist politicians.
The Order says the Drumcree parade is its “Alamo,” that it refuses to recognize the Parades Commission or its rulings, and that it will not speak to residents’ groups, as to do so would imply their right to withhold consent.
The Orangemen says they will remain at Drumcree for a full year if necessary to vindicate their right to walk the “Queen’s Highway.” The Orange Order accuses the residents’ association of refusing to recognize its British and Protestant culture and of being a front for Sinn Fein.
Within five hours of the parade being blocked, rioting broke out in Belfast, Derry, Coleraine, Strabane and towns and villages across Northern Ireland, with parades, protests, barricades and petrol-bombings.
Some Catholics within the Garvaghy Road area believe the British government will keep its word this year, unlike 1996, when an Orange parade was forced down the road after five days of protests that brought the social and economic life of Northern Ireland to a virtual standstill.
The road they live on is now blocked at both ends by anti-tank emplacements, steel plating, concrete blocks and coils of barbed-wire fences. Cars are being allowed in and out, one by one, after checks.
Because of the rioting and roadblocks elsewhere, many people are not traveling to work. Many parents have chosen to leave, taking their children away to safety. At least one truck piled high with baggage was seen leaving the area on Saturday.
International observers include Congressional Black Caucus leader Donald Payne, a Democrat from New Jersey. They have been invited here by the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition and come from Boston, New York, Canada, South Africa and Europe.
California State Senator Tom Hayden was invited to be an observer. He has compared the struggle of local Nationalists to that of the anti-segregation campaign in the Southern U.S.
“With all due respect, I believe that you [Northern Secretary, Mo Mowlam] and Prime Minister Tony Blair are very much in the same situation today as the Kennedy Administration was at the time,” Hayden said.
“Facing down your colleague, David Trimble, and the Orange Order cannot possibly be your political desire, but the winds of history may yet make it your destiny” Hayden wrote to Mowlam.
A compromise put to the Irish and British governments and passed to Trimble from the Garvaghy Residents proposed: