Category: Archive

The Orange citadel under siege

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

PORTADOWN, Co. Armagh — There was one cry of "No surrender" from the county grand master of the Orange Lodge, Denis Watson, before the Portadown march set off for Drumcree under blue skies, but for the most part the mood of the marchers was more one of resignation than defiance. They were not intending to storm the barbed-wire defenses thrown up by the British army around the nationalist enclave of Garvaghy Road, from which they had again been barred. This would be a dignified protest. And so for the most part it was. But in spite of the relatively relaxed atmosphere, the marchers and their supporters were aware that there were grave issues at stake.

As the Orange march went down the main street to the peel of bells from St. Mark’s Church of Ireland, heading for its confrontation with Garvaghy Road nationalists and British barbed wire, 32-year-old antiques dealer Gary Connolly said he believed it was no accident that Portadown was the site of the showdown between Orange tradition and nationalists.

"Portadown was picked because it is known as the Orange citadel. If you break this town, you break the Order," he said. It was only a few miles away, in Loughgall, that the Orange Order was founded in 1795.

The fate of the two, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Order, has long between intertwined. So, for the marchers and their supporters, several thousand strong, the Drumcree crisis was part of a broader crisis within the ranks of Northern Irish unionism, one that has been brought to a head by the UUP’s rejection of the latest attempt to resolve the impasse over decommissioning.

UUP leader David Trimble has all but said "no" to British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s proposal to begin setting up the new power-sharing executive on July 15, with its provisions for the IRA to furnish an inventory of weaponry followed by actual decommissioning within five weeks. This has prompted Blair to declare that if Unionists persisted in rejecting the offer "it would be a tactical own goal of monumental proportions." But in Portadown, the crowd applauding the marchers did not agree.

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"There’s no definite commitment from the IRA," said retired farmer William Robinson, 76. His friend Moses Jones agreed.

"The guns are in the South," he said. "The IRA won’t give them up." He believed the Irish government had no interest in forcing them to do so.

Gary Connolly, the antique dealer, said though he thought that "personally Trimble would go for it," the Unionist Party would not let him.

"He can’t go back on his ‘no guns, no government’ position," Connolly said. Unionists say this means some immediate decommissioning before Sinn Féin can get into the executive. The offer of some guns a few weeks later is, for them, not good enough.

"Why on earth should I give the benefit of doubt to terrorists," said UUP security spokesman Ken Maginnis. They fear it would allow republicans to hold out after getting into government. Nor are the sanctions that Blair says will follow if the IRA reneges on the deal sufficient for to placate Unionist anxiety. These include closing down the assembly and putting the Good Friday agreement under review.

Unionism in crisis

According to UUP Belfast city councilor Chris McGimpsey, who has long been regarded as a spokesman for the more liberal wing of the party, this is tantamount to putting the fate of the new government of Northern Ireland "in the hands of the Army Council," the IRA’s leadership body. "It won’t go in our community," he said, speaking from the Belfast city council where he was attending a meeting. He said it was not just the hard-line and Orange Order Unionists who were holding out against the proposals, but the liberal wing of the party. McGimpsey said that Blair should impose sanctions only on Sinn Fein if the IRA does not get rid of its weaponry, and expel the party from the executive. If this was agreed on, then Unionists would accept the prime minister’s proposal. He expressed dismay, however, that the Social Democratic and Labor Party might come out against the idea.

"During this entire debate [over decommissioning], the SDLP has just sat back," he said, "as if it was just a Unionist Party vs. Sinn Fein thing."

The solidarity so far of the "pan-nationalist front" has been in stark contrast to the fragmentation of Unionism over recent years. In spite of McGimpsey’s claims that the liberal section of the party is strongly opposed to Blair’s offer, some liberal Unionist supporters express dismay at Trimble’s rejection of the deal. At a golf club outside the prosperous County Down town of Banbridge, only a few miles from Portadown, Joseph Campbell, a 49-year-old businessman, sipped a cocktail and said he was considering writing a letter to the UUP leader, who is his constituency MP.

"I’ll tell him that if he doesn’t go for this, I’ll never vote Unionist again." Campbell said he would vote Alliance. His wife, Pat, who is a Catholic, said that she now believed the UUP’s continuing refusal to accept any deal, short of immediate decommissioning, was proof that "they simply don’t want to share power with Catholics. It’s bigotry."

As the Sunday march wound its way toward Drumcree, it passed the statue of Edward James Saunderson, who was Westminster MP for North Armagh and leader of the Irish Unionist Party from 1885 until his death in 1906. He strikes a confident pose, hands on his lapels, staring into the future with obvious confidence. Unionists no longer reflect that confident mood. The Unionist Party is no longer the monolith it was at the beginning of the century. Campbell, the Banbridge businessman, believes that if the current peace efforts fall apart because the Unionist Party reject’s the British Prime Minister’s offer, a lot of liberal support will "peel off to Alliance." On the other hand, if Trimble were to accept, and go into government without immediately getting any guns, the UUP would lose support to the anti-Good Friday agreement parties, the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and the United Kingdom Unionist Party, led by Robert McCartney.

In the meantime, Blair, in a last-ditch attempt to win Unionist support for his offer, has offered to fly all 26 party members of the assembly to London to meet him and discuss the latest crisis. Trimble rejected the offer

"If this fails," said an informed source close to the talks, "the Good Friday agreement is finished."

What it would mean for the future of Unionism is probably further fragmentation and confusion.

"Unionism has to reinvent itself," said McGimpsey. "We need to rethink our goals."

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