Marchers halted in N. Ireland Security forces prevent violence, keep Protestants from Catholic community

July 06, 1998|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

PORTADOWN, Northern Ireland -- A huge military and police operation prevented Protestant marchers from going through a Roman Catholic neighborhood yesterday and staved off a threat of violence that could have been a major setback for the Northern Ireland peace process.

The confrontation between security forces and the Protestants threatens to drag on for several days, however, as the Protestants camped out in front of steel barricades and vowed to stay there "as long as it takes" to win the right to march where they want.

Two years ago, after a similar five-day standoff, Protestants forced the British government to back down after they shut down airports and ports and set up barricades around the country. Whether they will attempt such tactics on a large scale this time was unclear, but in North Belfast about 100 defiant Protestants hijacked a car and burned it to create a road barricade.

Before the march, the Portadown Lodge called on members to protest peacefully. But security forces feared that other Protestants could take advantage of the situation to provoke violence.

The Protestant Orange lodge's Portadown march, one of 3,000 Northern Ireland marches that take place each year, has been HTC flash point of violence in recent years. Traditionally, the Protestants have marched from the center of town to the Drumcree church in the rural outskirts and then have returned to town along the Garvaghy Road.

They have refused to vary the return route despite violent protests from Catholic residents along Garvaghy Road, who see such marches as arrogant and provocative. This year, a new official Parades Commission ruled the Garvaghy Road off-limits because of the danger of violence.

The Protestants protested that this was a violation of their civil rights and refused to negotiate with the Catholics.

The 2,000 members of the Portadown Orange Lodge were joined by hundreds of Orangemen who drove into the town early yesterday from all over Northern Ireland. Most of the outside contingent left after the church service.

The 2,000-member security forces kept the marchers away from the Catholics of Garvaghy Road and from themselves. On a road just below the church, security forces erected a 12-foot-high steel barrier on a small bridge and surrounded it with barbed wire.

"This is a total disgrace," said an Orange leader. "They are preventing British subjects from marching on the queen's highway."

Denis Watson, head of the Portadown Lodge and a newly elected assemblyman, said Protestants would stand their ground below Drumcree church for a year if necessary to assert their right to march.

"Cultural apartheid didn't work in South Africa or the United States, and it won't work in Portadown," he said.

Pub Date: 7/06/98

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