By Anne Cadwallader
PORTADOWN, Co. Armagh — Neutral observers of the annual Drumcree marches could not help but sigh with relief when this year’s confrontation outside Portadown ended in a damp squib rather than a conflagration.
For residents of the Garvaghy Road, however, the peaceful dispersal of the Orange brethren only stoked immediate fears for the future. What, they asked, had Portadown District Loyal Orange Lodge No. 1 been promised in return for their good behavior?
The Orangemen themselves, facing into a massive security operation aimed at keeping them off the road, were displaying a we-know-something-you-don’t attitude on Sunday as they quietly left the field that many feared would be a battleground.
Garvaghy Road residents were in little doubt what that "something" was: A march through their area within months, even weeks, and a secret deal with the British government.
However, those fears were somewhat assuaged later with news that the Parades Commission will not permit a parade along the Garvaghy Road until and at least there are face to face talks between Orangemen and the residents.
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That at least was cause for hope, a feeling in strong contrast to the ominous start to what is now known as "Drumcree Weekend." The British Army had once again turned the fields and hedges around Drumcree church into a fortress resembling the World War One Somme battlefield that the Orangemen, ostensibly, come each year to commemorate.
Early on Friday, soldiers arrived, dug out and flooded the stream separating the Drumcree fields from those closer to the Garvaghy Road.
The huge security operation then unfolded with crisp precision: Soldiers constructed miles of razor-wire fencing complete with stakes and halogen lighting;
€ Constructed a 15-foot-high metal anti-tank emplacement on the road leading from the church;
€ Erected first-aid tents, canteen-tents and plastic portable lavatories for the soldiers
€ Cut off the main Garvaghy Road area with barbed-wire fences, metal posts and barricades;
€ Placed Belgian-made water-cannon vehicles at strategic points.
With all the military hardware in place there was almost a jaunty atmosphere on Saturday morning along the Garvaghy with a book launching in the sunshine outside the community center. People from across Ireland and the wider world, who meet only at this time of year, fell into each other’s arms, shrieking out greetings and memories of previous "Drumcrees."
The book, "Garvaghy, A Community Under Siege," is a history of Orange marches in Portadown, combined with personal testimony of the disruption to family life they have caused, along with plenty of photographs illustrating the sad history of the area. The book was jointly written by a group of local residents.
The mood at the launch was relaxed, confident, unafraid — so unlike previous years when the residents were biting their fingernails, smoking like troopers and having sleepless nights worrying if "the Orangemen are coming down the road."
It changed for a time on Saturday when two bands in a County Derry support parade swaggered past evening Mass at St. John’s church and struck up "The Sash," drowning out the priest’s words inside.
When an American woman observer was attacked and beaten with an Orange flag pole, the memories came flooding back of how blood can be spilled so easily when members of the "loyal orders" and nationalists clash.
Despite concerns about what this might augur for the morning, the pubs and clubs on Saturday night along the Garvaghy Road were full of a motley crew of international observers, political joyriders, journalists, local people and visiting Sinn Feiners.
On Sunday morning, the Orange parade left Portadown with three bands that played respectful hymn music, or just drum beats, as they passed St. John’s.
The Orangemen then went out of sight of the residents. Only if they pressed their noses against the fencing of Tir na n’Og GAA pitch on the hilltop could the people of the Garvaghy Road observe the Orangemen.
The sounds of Lambeg drums, squealing flutes and the occasional "God Save the Queen" come wafting across on the breeze, however, along with the ubiquitous noise of helicopter blades tearing the sky.
The press and international observers were permitted to walk down the laneway to the hillside to view the other side of the stream and gaze on the Loyal Sons of Ulster leaving the area.
From this vantage point, the world’s media, recently released from five days of virtual imprisonment in the Stormont compound, could see the six district officers of the Portadown lodges approaching the metal barricade and passing their verbal protest to the most senior RUC man available.
After that, stewards tried to shift the thousands waiting into another field, next door, for a rally, this to conform with the Parades Commission’s ruling that they disperse by 2:30 on Sunday afternoon.
There, district master Harold Gracey said he would "walk away" from the protest if it turned violent.
At the end of the rally, if some chose later to take off their Orange sashes and venture back into the field to protest — well, that was not the fault of the Order, who could wash their hands of whatever activities they then engaged in.
On the Garvaghy side of the fence, the mood darkened. What devilish plot were the Orangemen involved in? What secret pact had they entered into with Tony Blair?
The only violence so far has been the attack on Saturday night on the American observer. No homes were burned, no roadblocks set up, no factories closed, no petrol bombs thrown. Could this be Portadown in July?
The Ulster Volunteer Force and, to a lesser extent, the Ulster Defense Association had sent out word that youths were not to riot, and this clearly had a bearing on the relative peace of the main marching season’s opening weekend.
On Sunday night there was a slight disturbance when a group of loyalists tried to creep into the cemetery adjoining St. John’s Catholic chapel on the Garvaghy Road — but four helicopter loads of British soldiers accompanied by fierce-looking dogs and searchlights put paid to that escapade.
So, for the time being, an uneasy calm has descended on the Garvaghy Road. But still there is no solution and few believe the summer will pass by without some price being paid by someone for the blocking of the Orange Order’s path.