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Protestants Say End to Crisis Is 15 Minutes Away

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Fifteen minutes, that’s all we’re asking,” potbellied Belfast Orangeman Robert Mills, an unemployed assembly line worker, complained Saturday. “If they can’t tolerate that, what can they tolerate?”

As negotiations opened in a last-ditch attempt to find an exit from Northern Ireland’s worst crisis since a formula for provincial peace was hammered out in April, members of the Orange Order, a Protestant group more than 2 centuries old, said their resolve to hold a controversial march through a largely Roman Catholic area was unbroken.

The parade will last no more than 15 minutes, the Orangemen promised. Last year, after security forces brutally cleared the road of hostile Catholics, it took something like half that.

“What we are standing here for is the right to live in our own country, with our own faith,” explained Donald Grimmie, 54, a strapping truck driver who served as a corporal in the British Army’s Royal Ulster Regiment. “Otherwise, I’ll remind you of an old saying: ‘You stand on my toes, and I’ll stand on your head.’ ”

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It is one of the most bizarre ironies of Northern Ireland’s new politics that citizens who unflinchingly support the British crown now find themselves on the opposite side of the concertina wire from British troops and officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and on the receiving end of volleys of plastic riot-control rounds fired by the RUC.

“You fools, it’s not us who are sending your mates home in body bags!” one man shouted Saturday across the 10-foot moat that British troops have dug to keep Protestants out of the Garvaghy Road neighborhood 30 yards away.

For the third year, a planned march in this town in County Armagh in the province’s heart has blown up into a major controversy--and this time it has the power to topple the political framework agreed to by Protestant and Catholic parties for rebuilding intercommunity harmony and peace.

The Portadown march was refused by the province’s Parades Commission, which saw it as a menace to public calm, but Orangemen have been here for a week anyway, insisting on their ancestral right to walk a route they began taking yearly in 1807.

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At stake, said David Jones, spokesman for Portadown’s 1,700 Orangemen, is “religious and political liberty.”

With the British government pushing for a way out of the impasse, groups representing residents of the predominantly Catholic Garvaghy Road neighborhood and the Orange Order conducted talks Saturday in the nearby city of Armagh.

Prime Minister Tony Blair proposed the “indirect proximity” talks, during which the delegations were supposed to stay in separate rooms while intermediaries shuttled between them.

After eight hours of meetings, the talks broke up, with officials reporting “some progress” but no word of when they might resume.

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“If it’s not over by Monday, we’ll be down again, and the rest of Belfast will be down with us,” said Mills, who made the 25-mile trip from the province’s capital to Armagh with fellow members of Orange Lodge No. 2004.

On Monday, Protestants throughout Northern Ireland will march to commemorate the 1690 victory of Protestant William of Orange over James II, England’s last Catholic sovereign, at the Battle of the Boyne.

Orange Order officials have predicted that as many as 100,000 Orangemen and sympathizers might stream into Portadown, a scenario British officials are desperate to head off.

On the grassy fields that slope gently down from the gray-stone Church of the Ascension at Drumcree and its walled graveyard, the throngs have already swelled to as many as 20,000 people, though only a few hundred were present Saturday afternoon.

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Under cover of night, the police and soldiers have been attacked with ball bearings, fireworks, rifle rounds and nail bombs, and police have replied with plastic bullets.

On Friday, 20 demonstrators were hurt, including a 21-year-old woman struck in the eye by a plastic bullet.

When asked about the repeated attacks on security forces, Jones answered: “What we are trying to do is get our marshals to stop that kind of activity.”

It seemed a tacit admission that the Orange Order, which disavows violence, had lost control of the situation.

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For the group’s 80,000 members and many others in Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority, the 3,000 parades held during the summer to the tootling of fife and drum bands are a dearly held part of their heritage, not the divisive, hate-filled anachronism they appear to many Catholics.

Often, the marches have been the spark that has ignited sectarian violence. As long ago as 1813, a Protestant column traversing a Catholic quarter of Belfast led to the city’s first sectarian riot, in which two people lost their lives.

Behind the ban placed on the Portadown march, some Orangemen sensed the hand of their bitterest enemies, their Catholic neighbors seeking an end to British rule and reunification of the island.

“We believe it’s the IRA [Irish Republican Army] that did this,” said Jim King, 24, a steelworker in the Belfast shipyard. “When they succeed in getting the parades banned, they’ll go back to bombing and shooting us.”

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On Saturday, the Orange Order made a new legal application to enter Garvaghy Road, and the Parades Commission said it will consider the matter by midmorning today. Whether authorities consent or not, people assembled near the Drumcree church were certain they will be marching again along Garvaghy Road.

“The paras would shoot,” said Grimmie, the former army corporal, gesturing at the maroon-bereted British paratroopers who are among the troops brought in to defend Garvaghy Road. “But they can’t drop all of us.”


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