Out of lock step with Irish peace Parade: Rioting that ensued when a Protestant group marched through the Roman Catholic section of a small town has caused both sides to lose ground.

July 23, 1996|By BOSTON GLOBE

PORTADOWN, Northern Ireland -- The path to peace in Northern Ireland took a nasty detour this month down Garvaghy Road.

Winding through the Roman Catholic section of this old mill town, the road is desolate today, littered with rocks and broken bottles and burned-out cars.

British army armored personnel carriers idle at intersections, as if more rioting were just a matter of time.

A standoff in Portadown touched off some of the worst street violence in Northern Ireland since the troubles began in 1969. By the time it was over, the conflict had profoundly shaken confidence among Protestants and especially Catholics that the country had changed for the better, and raised questions about whether the ultimate goal of the peace process -- agreement on how to share the island of Ireland -- was a realistic aim.

What began as a dispute over a parade route seemed to become overnight a threat to years of halting progress toward peace. How it happened, some who were there suggest, offers insight into the future of the process.

The violence began July 7, when members of the Orange Order, the largest Protestant fraternal organization, violently resisted a police order that directed their parade away from the predominantly Catholic Garvaghy Road. For five days, the mostly Protestant police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, stood firm, saying the law prohibited the Orangemen from keeping their route.

Catholics saw rerouting the parade as a necessary gesture, evidence that things had changed in Northern Ireland, where they are a minority. Protestants saw the traditional parade route as their birthright, the need to march made all the more imperative by the perceived gains nationalists have made under a 17-month Irish Republican Army cease-fire that was broken in February.

As loyalist pressure mounted, the police chief reversed his decision July 11 and allowed the marchers through. Catholics who tried to block the road were beaten, shot at with plastic bullets and dragged away by police to clear the road for the Orangemen.

The televised scenes of Catholics being clubbed by police ignited riots in Catholic areas elsewhere, especially in Londonderry. The week of violence was capped by a July 14 bombing of the Protestant-owned Killyhevlin Hotel.

When it was over, each side was resolute in the belief that the other side was wrong.

"Who gave the orders to do this?" asked Joanna O'Hara, 36, pointing to bruises on her arms that she said were caused by police who beat and dragged her from Garvaghy Road as she was returning from shopping in town.

"I was never involved in the troubles, but now the hatred is deep, it feels like it is cemented right here," she added, pointing to her heart. "We haven't been feeling that way, haven't been looking over our shoulders for two years, but I know I'll never get that feeling back. Not after what they did."

Don Robinson, 58, a Protestant real estate agent who lives along the march route, said: "They never should have tried to stop the march, and now it's left us right back to where we were. All that ground is lost. And the few extremists on both sides are smiling all the while."

Even after the IRA broke its cease-fire in February, many people in Northern Ireland hoped the peace process would muddle on. But residents on both sides say that optimism and the reality of calm in their daily lives faded into the dark pall of smoke that rose over Belfast, Londonderry and Portadown.

Last week, all eyes turned to month-old peace talks that had been stalled by disputes over procedure and the role of the chief mediator, former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell.

British Prime Minister John Major said: "There is no other show in town, other than these talks. The simple truth is this: We proceed with these talks and we make them a success, or we go back to the mayhem of the last 25 years."

Cardinal Cahal Daly, the Catholic primate for all Ireland whose traditionally moderate views have become significantly more strident since the standoff at Garvaghy Road, said: "The British government has allowed two years" of talks "to be wasted on preconditions and protocol; this has only inflamed passions and polarized the community."

Billy Hutchinson, a leading loyalist, said: "The hatred has always been there, and it may always be there. But the more important point is that people looked into the abyss last week, and we all know we don't want to go there again."

Yesterday, Mitchell told the parties he wanted them to end their wrangles over procedural matters and agree on an agenda by next week.

The intersection of the marching season and the peace process was, in many ways, inevitable. There are about 3,500 marches each year in Northern Ireland, the majority of them by Orangemen and those loyal to Britain. The annual Orange parade in Portadown always has been among the most contentious.

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