With all participants on their best behavior before a global media contingent, a perennially controversial Protestant parade through a country churchyard here turned into a quick and quiet affair this afternoon--a hopeful omen that could set a peaceful tone for the remainder of Northern Ireland's summer "marching season."
The march--which has sparked rioting, injury and death in recent years--produced little more than subdued grumbling today among thousands of members of the Protestant Loyal Orange Lodge. The Orangemen were angry that they were blocked by British troops once again from following their traditional route through a Catholic neighborhood--but they were determined to demonstrate that they could conduct an orderly parade nonetheless.
Beneath a moist and misty summer sky, lodge members stood aside while a symbolic delegation of nine men, wearing their trademark bowler hats, white gloves and orange vests, marched to a massive army barricade blocking the parade route. The nine then turned around and marched back.
It produced a placid picture for the world's television cameras--and that's exactly what the marchers said they had in mind. "We want to send a signal around the world that the Orange Order can preserve the peace on Drumcree Road," said David Burrows, deputy master of the local Orange lodge. "This rural church is such a pretty spot for the cameras, and we have to face the fact that the cameras will be on us, rather than on the Garvaghy Road."
If the cameras had been filming at the housing project a quarter-mile away on Garvaghy Road in the town of Portadown--the Catholic neighborhood that wants to keep the Protestant marchers out--they would have found an equally tranquil scene. Several hundred Catholics who had gathered behind a barbed-wire barricade outside St. John the Baptist Church were just as quiet as the Orangemen. A few congregation members shouted insults toward the marchers, but they were quickly hushed by neighborhood leaders.
Again this year, the march beneath the tall brown steeple of the Anglican church at Drumcree has become a central element of the ongoing political struggle that has made Northern Ireland a lethal battleground between Protestants--about 55 percent of the population--and Catholics. Most Protestants are "unionists"--that is, supporters of the political union between Northern Ireland and Britain. Most Catholics are "nationalists," who want to break ties with Britain and merge into a single nation with the Republic of Ireland to the south.
To further the ambitious peace agreement endorsed by both communities last year, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, set forth on Friday a take it or leave it proposal that would pass governing authority from London to a new local assembly later this month, followed by voluntary disarmament of sectarian militia groups.
Most nationalist parties--including Sinn Fein, the political wing of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army--appear to support that plan. To make it work, though, Blair and Ahern also need the backing of the major unionist parties, in which the Protestant Orangemen have an important voice.
Blair has reportedly told the Orangemen that they will be permitted to complete their traditional parade in years to come if they can help provide a peaceful transition to local government this summer. "We have a promise from Tony Blair," said Dave McConnel, 54, an Orangeman from Portadown. "If we can control this marching season, we'll get to march our normal route later on."
Ancient religious enmity still smolders throughout the six counties that make up Northern Ireland, and it was evident among the Orangemen today. The thick steel wall the British army erected to block the parade route was quickly covered with posters and slogans, many aimed at the Roman Catholic Church. "No surrender to the Roman anti-Christ," read one. Another showed Pope John Paul II with the number 666, a biblical symbol of Satan, scrawled on his forehead.
That religious hostility, in a province that is more than 99 percent Christian, explains why soldiers and police were prompted to build a barrier of walls, moats, rows of barbed wire and armored personnel carriers here.
Each July, the Orangemen hold thousands of parades across Northern Ireland to mark Protestant victories in a series of battles in 1690 in which English King William III, of the Dutch House of Orange, defeated a Catholic army under ousted King James II to secure Protestant rule.
The Orangemen say they have a fundamental right to parade down any public road, and they insist on marching along Garvaghy Road--past the Catholic neighborhood--even though there's a parallel road a few blocks away where nobody objects to the parade. The Catholics say the Drumcree march is an insulting display of Protestant triumphalism--even though the parade would come and go in less than 20 minutes.
To avoid violence, the British government ruled that the Protestants could not march down Garvaghy Road.
CAPTION: Orange Order marchers stop at army barrier blocking their route through a Catholic district. The annual march sparked widespread violence in the past.