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Revealed - The New Boss at Drumcree

(by Sinead King, Sunday People)

This is the Orangeman who will today fire up crowds at Drumcree with the words: "We can't even trust the Orange Order leadership anymore." Hardline anti-Agreement crusader Mark Harbinson leads a hardcore group of two dozen ultra-loyalists who believe they've been sold out.

They want to see an army of Ulster men and women come together to 'save' Northern Ireland from republicanism. And today Harbinson will tell supporters of the Drumcree parade - already furious at the fifth ban in a row on the Garvaghy Road march - that they'll have to turn the tide themselves.

For Harbinson, who some fear may need counselling, believes he alone is the last hope for Ulster. The Stoneyford man and his band of extremists have seized on the belief that the Orange Order has been infiltrated and that its position is being weakened from the inside.

They are outraged at the call from Portadown Orange spokesman David Jones for people to disperse from Drumcree field this afternoon to avoid trouble. And they are ready to stay on long into the night to make things harder for the police and army and to mop up as much support as possible.

"He'll be up on a podium giving it all he's got today," by a man who described himself as a 'friend and supporter' of Mark's.

"A lot of people better listen to what he has to say because Mark Harbinson is going to win the support of a lot of people who came into that field who had never heard of him before."

In recent weeks Harbinson, along with other key members inside his Grand Protestant Committee organisation, have been vying for the limelight.

There have been calls for unionists to picket the home of 'traitor Trimble.' As a direct result David Trimble's house near Lisburn was picketed by up to 50 loyalists. And on Thursday the GPC showed up again at Hillsborough Castle to harangue the UUP leader following talks with Prime Minister Tony Blair. Harbinson, a fantatic who is convinced he is gaining more support, has now told GPC members that he's going to speak at 'the hill.'

"There's a bit of excitement about it," the GPC follower told us.

"He's not like anyone else around these days because he doesn't hold back when he talks.

"Johnny Adair has shown he's got nothing to offer and couldn't organise a smell in a pig factory.

"But Harbinson is a different kettle of fish. He's serious."

Harbinson has vehemently denied that he has any links to any loyalist paramilitaries. His followers have helped set up six noticable Grand Protestant Committee meetings east of the Bann although initially 12 were planned. Hard core Two others failed miserably when hardly anyone turned up.

One man who attended one of the rallies was DUP Assemblyman Jim Shannon. But they have also caught the imagination of both hard core loyalists and security forces alike.

He told us: "Mark Harbinson was one of the speakers but I have never met him before.

"They didn't come across as militant." But insiders say the true picture is very different.

Sunday People has been on Harbinson's trail for five months after learning that plans were being made to give pro-Agreement unionists 'a bumpy ride.'

"A whole load of plans were drawn up to annoy the hell out of the UUP and Orangemen who weren't doing their bit.

"There was some reaction from the police and a lot of that was put on the back burner.

"The police have been on at us a lot but it looks like they have backed off lately.

"I think that means that they have other ways of tracking what's going on because they seem to know.

"But the main thing at the moment is to get Drumcree out of the way and a decent speech is expected.

"When Harbinson stands up, people will listen.

"If we can use that as a recruiting drive on the day then good for us. After that we'll look at the next step.

"It's been a shaky start but don't go thinking that we're not building something here.

"We've had word from middle-class Protestants that they want to put a few pounds our way.

"There's a lot of support out there and loyalist people don't know what to do with it.

"The Grand Protestant Committee will be straightforward with them."

Assistant Chief Constable Stephen White is hopeful the heat has gone out of the protest and that the violence of recent years will not be repeated.

He said yesterday he wanted to mount "less warlike" security precautions. "I want it to be like a civic policing operation." As far back as February he set the Royal Engineers the challenge of coming up with a range of security measures - from the heavy barriers of the past to "something much more light and flexible." But if trouble does break out he is ready to step up security.

The old concrete and steel barrier used in recent years has been taken back to the town. Freshly painted it will be kept down the road ready to be moved into place if needed. Water cannon will also be on hand. But he said: "It is unlikely there is going to be a lot of violence."

Portadown Orange Order spokesman David Jones refused yesterday to comment on the security operation mounted at Drumcree.

"That's purely an operational matter for the police," he said. But he insisted that anyone wanting to cause trouble would not be helped by Orangemen.


This article appeared in the DATE edition of the Sunday People.