With the future of Northern Ireland's peace pact in doubt, British army engineers erected miles of metal and barbed-wire barricades Saturday on the eve of an annual Protestant march that has erupted into violence in the past.
This time, the troubled province's police chief predicted that outlawed Protestant groups responsible for orchestrating much of the previous violence wouldn't mount organized attacks on his riot-hardened forces.
"The intelligence at our disposal indicates that the leaders of these groups genuinely do not want to be involved, and that must be welcomed," said Ronnie Flanagan, chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which since 1998 has blocked marchers from entering Portadown's main Roman Catholic area.
Several thousand local members of the Orange Order, Northern Ireland's major Protestant fraternal group, were expected to march today from the center of Portadown through predominantly Protestant streets to a rural Anglican church on Drumcree hill.
But their return route through the town's major Catholic enclave, Garvaghy Road, will be blocked by a steel barricade on a narrow road flanked by fields of barbed wire. Orange leaders said they would issue a protest letter, then urge most supporters to disperse.
On Saturday, scores of police and soldiers sat in armored cars on a nearby road, with hundreds more on standby, ready to be deployed if any Protestants tried to break through.
Anti-Catholic extremists have been increasingly active in the run-up to the major Orange marches this month. A 19-year-old Catholic man was buried Saturday, three days after being shot in the head by a gunman on a motorcycle. Police said he was the victim of a Protestant gang.
The Protestant marching season comes amid political turmoil in Northern Ireland. David Trimble, the province's first minister, resigned a week ago to protest the Irish Republican Army's refusal to disarm under the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
Feuding Catholic and Protestant politicians predicted that talks this week in England between the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland would not break the deadlock in Northern Ireland's peace process.