Fifty-one weeks of the year, the emerald green meadow here could be featured in a travel brochure, with its gurgling brook and flowering bramble beneath the tall brown steeple of the old country church. But this week, the scene is more suited to a British army recruiting poster.
With thousands of angry Protestant lodge members planning to gather here Sunday, the rolling pastureland around Drumcree Parish Church has been turned into a high-security military encampment. The gentle brook has been dredged into a broad muddy moat, which is backed up, in turn, by iron walls, barbed-wire barricades and a long line of armored personnel carriers to protect police and soldiers from the crowd.
Such precautions are considered necessary because the first Sunday in July is the day of the Loyal Orange Lodge's annual Drumcree parade. It is the first event of Northern Ireland's "marching season," six weeks when Protestants in this badly divided British province stage memorial marches to honor the victory of a Protestant king, William of Orange, over a Catholic army in 1690.
Last year, the Drumcree gathering turned into five nights of rioting, leaving one police officer dead and scores of people wounded on both sides. This year's march is expected to be less confrontational, in part because the massive fortifications erected by the British army present a formidable barrier, even to angry Orangemen.
Security officials say they are taking no chances, though, because the country's mood is uglier than it was a year ago.
About this time last year, the people of Northern Ireland were proud and excited about the Good Friday peace agreement they had just approved in a province-wide referendum. The ambitious plan appeared to offer an end to 30 years of sectarian warfare that left 3,600 people dead.
But local politicians have spent the past year arguing over the terms of the agreement they all signed, and the peace process is stalemated.
On Friday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, issued a take-it-or-leave-it plan to end the impasse. The plan would set up a new inclusive local government in the province before the Irish Republican Army relinquishes any of its guns.
The proposal was warmly accepted by middle-of-the-road parties and Sinn Fein, the nationalist political party affiliated with the IRA. The primarily Protestant unionist parties were not happy, however.
Today, some unionist politicians rejected the plan. In fact, though, Blair has maneuvered the unionist parties into a corner. They may not like his proposal, but if they reject it, the unionists will take the blame for gutting the peace process.
David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party spent the day reviewing the plan with party leaders and made no comment.
According to a report in London's Sunday Telegraph, Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland, Marjorie Mowlam, is to be transferred to a different Cabinet post as a gesture to Trimble and the unionists. Mowlam is popular within Britain's ruling Labor Party, but Trimble has not formally spoken with her in more than a year. Last month, he hinted that Blair should fire her for incompetence.
It is likely that most of the Orangemen marching Sunday will be angry at the way Blair has put their leaders in a political bind. They also are furious because, again this year, they cannot extend their parade through a Catholic neighborhood.
"It seems absurd, you know what I mean?" said Mark Hutchinson,who brought his family to see the army's preparations. "To bring in thousands of soldiers and all this razor wire to block a seven-minute walk down a public road.
"But that's Northern Ireland, you know what I mean?" he continued. "We have to go to absurd lengths because people here haven't been willing to honor each other's basic rights."
CAPTION: British soldiers patrol a Catholic neighborhood in Northern Ireland. Area security has been bolstered in anticipation of a Protestant march today.
CAPTION: British soldiers keep watch across the razor wire outside Drumcree Church in Northern Ireland.