Crisis averted as Orangemen alter parade plans

July 23, 1997

By Dave Riley

There was widespread relief throughout northern Ireland as news spread that the Orange Order had cancelled or voluntarily re-routed four highly contentious marches. The annual July 12 celebrations of a 1690 Protestant victory over Catholics were to have passed through nationalist areas.

In the aftermath of the British government's decision to brutally force an Orange parade through the nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown on July 6, Orangemen faced unprecedented resistance to their parades.

Days of rioting had once again brought the six counties to the point of prolonged civil strife. The cost of the disturbances had reached £30 million and had threatened to engulf the city centres of Derry and Belfast if the July 12 marches proceeded as planned.

Scores had been injured by Royal Ulster Constabulary batons, plastic bullets, stones, petrol bombs and live rounds. One loyalist had blown himself up with his own bomb, and the death toll seemed certain to rise.

The prospect of serious conflict loomed largest in Belfast's Ormeau Road, where thousands of nationalists were expected to gather to peacefully resist an Orange parade crossing the Ormeau bridge into a nationalist area.

In a highly unstable situation, paramilitary splinter groups on both sides had promised to mount attacks, the Irish National Liberation Army also promising that its snipers would shoot Orangemen crossing the bridge.

There was widespread relief among nationalists, but fear remains that the respite may prove temporary.

The marching season is far from over. Contentious parades have been scheduled into September. Orangemen still refuse to enter into dialogue with residents' groups, so a resolution of the marching issue has still to be negotiated.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams welcomed the Orangemen's decision and appealed for them to engage in talks with nationalists. "As details emerge of how the Orange Order's decision came about, I think it will show that there were two factors at work: the mass mobilisations of nationalists and the debate within Orangeism as it came to terms with this."

While acknowledging the significance of this development — it was the first time since the Orange Order was founded that such a step was taken — Adams said that it was crucial that nationalists understand the dynamic which led to this departure so that the respite can be built upon.

"The watchword in all of this must be equality. The harsh reality, graphically illustrated by the events on the Garvaghy Road, is that nationalists living in the six counties are not equal citizens under British law or in the eyes of the institutions of this statelet."

Adams said a door had been opened which raised the possibility of a durable resolution of this issue. "This will be problematic, but let us leave no stone unturned in our efforts to achieve this", he said.

The Sinn Féin president appealed to the Unionist and Orange leaderships "to accept the underlying principles of dialogue and equality and respect for each other's position" as the basis of progress.

Adams said he upheld the right of the Orangemen to march. "Unionists, and particularly the British government, need to uphold the right of nationalists", he added.

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