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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Now is the time for residents to meet with Orange leadership to settle Drumcree

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Later today the Grand Princess, one of the most luxurious cruise liners in the world, will disgorge 3,700 passengers and crew onto the streets of Belfast. They will be met by a welcome band and a shuttle bus to the shops. Later, 600 Europeans aboard another liner, the Black Prince, will join them. The chances are that none of them will guess, or care, that this is Drumcree Sunday and that Thursday is July 12.

Only a few years ago Drumcree loomed like a spectre over Northern Ireland's tourist season. People left the province in droves, hoping the airports or ports wouldn't be disrupted as the Orange Order asserted its right to march down the Garvaghy Road.

Visitors were warned off. I can recall meeting two elderly American women filling their hire car at a petrol station on the north coast in one of the worst Drumcree years. They were terrified they would run into roadblocks, and were determined to get to Donegal as quickly as possible. They would not be stopping to see the Giant's Causeway, they would not be back and they were not reassured that this was a purely local dispute in which outsiders were unlikely to be targeted.

The dispute over the right to march lasted from 1995 until it fizzled into irrelevance as the Orange Order lost support after 2003. It erupted in the first year of the loyalist and republican ceasefires, deflating the mood of optimism at the very moment tour operators were, for the first time in years, tentatively advising visitors to Ireland to take in the north.

Drumcree not only destroyed the province's ability to attract tourists, it also encouraged a brain drain to Britain. Students who came home for the summer from English and Scottish universities and were thinking about looking for a job were greeted with an outpouring of intolerance and violence. Many found another good reason to look for work in England.

To any outside observer the issues seemed far too narrow to merit such an annual confrontation. It was about the route a group of Orangemen would take as they went home from a church service. The Garvaghy Road route had once been through fields, but now it was lined on both sides by a Catholic housing estate whose residents had been protesting peacefully for years against the march and the refusal of the Orange Order to meet them and discuss things.

So it might have remained but for a deliberate decision by both the Orange Order and republicans to make it a test of strength. For the republican movement, the marching issue was an opportunity to show that, despite the ceasefire, they were capable of political victories. It was also a moment in Sinn Féin's long struggle to dictate the pace to the SDLP and eventually to displace it.

Former prisoners were sent in to radicalise residents' groups in Portadown and the Ormeau Road, giving the Orange Order a further excuse not to talk. Residents, remembering the order's earlier refusal to meet priests and other community representatives, hardened their attitudes. They would not be told who could represent them.

The Sinn Féin strategy was spelled out by Gerry Adams at a closed session of a Sinn Féin conference. "Ask an activist in the north, did Drumcree happen by accident and he will tell you, no," the Sinn Féin president said. "Three years of work went into creating that situation and fair play to those who put the work in. They are the type of scene changes we need to focus on and exploit."

For the Orange Order, Portadown was its heartland. It had first marched home along its chosen route from Drumcree church in 1807 and its ability to continue to do so was seen as a defining test of status. "If we are bate in Portadown then we are bate," was an old Orange saying that summed up the attitude.

It was an issue the Orangemen felt they could win. If they were refused access to the Garvaghy Road, they could mass on the hillside, using the facilities of the church hall to prepare food.

There they could build up their strength until July 12, when Orangemen from across the province could be expected to descend on Portadown.

For the first few years the RUC buckled and forced the march through after a period of delay. Under the law as it then stood, the police were compelled to take whatever course of action would best preserve public order.

The Orangemen with their greater numbers posed the greater threat to order, and so the police picked their moment to push the march through. But the order had no long-term strategy. Having asserted their right to march, they should have met the residents from a position of strength and sought agreement for the future. Instead they counted on repeating the same trick every year. Reputations, such as David Trimble's, were built on it.

The order escalated the tension for as long as it could, its leadership privately doubtful but afraid to compromise or let hardliners down. The turning point came in 2000, when an independent Parades Commission was appointed and freed from the old requirement to preserve order at all costs. Now troops and police were poured in to enforce the commission's rulings.

As the marches were halted, support fell away. People were sickened by the violence and the murder of Catholics during the protests. Sinn Féin also softened; it wanted to stabilise the situation. But by now the protests had taken on a life of their own. Sinn Féin was powerless to damp down the militancy it had once inflamed.

Now the order wanted to talk to the residents and the residents refused. Sinn Féin tried to manoeuvre the situation to a position where a march might be agreed, but the residents' representative they once promoted said the issue was dead.

This year, for the second time running, the Orange Order is rebranding its July 12 demonstrations as Orangefest. There will be bouncy castles and floats at the fields, and there will be a cultural feel. All of which is to be welcomed, but Orangefest is only number six of a series of events during June and July listed in the Belfast welcome pack. It is called "one of Europe's largest cultural festivals with music, street pageantry and great family fun", but as a tourist draw it ranks behind such events as the Maritime festival, a performance of Chicago in the Grand Opera House, an open-air opera and a rose festival in a park.

Hotel occupancy rates for July have risen every year in the past three, according to the tourist board. A few of these can thank Orange bands and visitors from Scotland and further afield for their good fortune. But the big boost to tourism is not what the Orange Order is doing in the way of parades, but what it is not doing in the way of protests. A chill factor that blighted our summers is over, hopefully for good.

With the collapse of the Drumcree protests, a saner leadership has come to the fore among Portadown Orangemen. Darryl Hewitt, the new master of the lodge, has pioneered dialogue with the Parades Commission and is seeking it with the residents.

Now it is time for nationalists to act from a position of strength and meet Hewitt and his colleagues to discuss future marching arrangements. If they fail to do so, their intransigence will lead them into the same trap as the Orangemen, and they may see victory slip from their fingers.


July 8, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on July 8, 2007.