N. Irish foes accept indirect talks Violence threatens three-month peace

July 11, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- In a bid to quell the violence that has threatened to destroy Northern Ireland's fragile peace, Protestant Orange Order marchers and embattled Roman Catholic residents in Portadown yesterday accepted a British government offer to enter indirect talks.

Thousands of the Orange Order marchers camped on a hillside by Drumcree Church are seeking to defy a government ban on their parade along the Garvaghy Road, while the Catholic residents want the parade rerouted.

The standoff that began Sunday has left Northern Ireland on a knife edge, with cars and homes burned while police are attacked by rioters.

"What we want to see is this issue resolved and resolved in a way that is acceptable so that things return to normal, not just this year but every year," said David Trimble, the first minister of Northern Ireland's fledgling local assembly and an Orange Order member who's also the leader of the province's main Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists.

Meanwhile, London police investigating dissident Irish republican terrorist groups said the arrests of three men "thwarted an imminent terrorist attack." Seven other suspects were arrested in London and Ireland.

"We arrested three men this evening [last night] and they were found to be in possession of explosive devices. We believe these terrorist devices were intended to be used in London within minutes," said John Grieve, head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch.

The three men with the explosives were apparently posing as students. Police said no shots were fired and there were no injuries in an operation that involved hundreds of officers and shut down some of the busiest parts of London for several hours.

Three other persons also were arrested in London, a woman near Oxford Street, a prime shopping street, and a couple near the new British Library building on Euston Street.

Four arrests were made in the Irish Republic in the joint British-Irish surveillance operation. Information uncovered in raids in Dublin and Dundalk led Irish police to pass on information to their British counterparts.

The arrests reinforced fears that the standoff in Portadown may explode this weekend into all-out bloodshed across Northern Ireland, demolishing the fragile peace reached April 10.

Both Protestant and Catholic militants who oppose the peace accord appeared poised for a sharp escalation in violence.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday the ban on the Garvaghy Road parade will continue to be enforced and backed his pledge with a crack British army unit. Two army Chinook helicopters swooped down on fields near the Drumcree Anglican Church and deposited the troops dressed in riot gear.

The suspects arrested last night were believed to belong to Irish terrorist groups opposed to the peace deal. The Irish Republican Army has maintained a cease-fire since July 1997 and its political wing, Sinn Fein, was involved in negotiations that produced Northern Ireland's peace accord.

The march standoff at Drumcree Church is considered the first significant test of Northern Ireland's peace accord, which was brokered by the British and Irish governments and approved overwhelmingly by voters on both sides of the Irish border.

Northern Ireland's annual marching season has been a consistent irritant in the British province. The Orange Order marks the victory of Protestant William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. But many Catholics say the parades are marches of triumph.

The season reaches a climax today, tomorrow and Monday, when the largest parades are scheduled to take place. An estimated 100,000 Protestant demonstrators are expected to converge on the Drumcree area this holiday weekend.

Talks between the Orangemen and the residents could be held as early as this morning at a secret location.

Under the talks plan, two mediators and Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, are to act as go-betweens for four-member delegations.

"This is an attempt and a genuine attempt to address what are very difficult circumstances through dialogue," said Blair's spokesman.

"What the whole peace process has been about is to replace terror and violence with dialogue and democracy. That has prevailed."

"I very much welcome this initiative," Trimble told reporters.

Breandan MacCionnaith, leader of the Catholic residents on Garvaghy Road, said: "We have given a cautious welcome to the initiative from Downing Street. We have been down this road before in proximity talks. For our part, we would view this as a small first step toward face-to-face dialogue with the Orange Order. As far as we are concerned, we have always said we wanted a longtime solution on this issue."

Indirect talks were attempted in 1996 and 1997, but both failed to resolve the conflict over the Garvaghy Road march. In 1996, the march was blocked but security forces backed off after four nights of Protestant violence across Northern Ireland. Last year, police beat off protesters to let the Orangemen through.

Police had tallied 550 attacks on officers and soldiers since Sunday, including 15 shooting incidents. Police in the same period recorded 151 arrests, 548 gasoline bomb attacks, 103 attacks on homes and 367 attacks on vehicles.

Pub Date: 7/11/98

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