Nationalists in Portadown are seeking support across Ireland in an effort to end eight months of sectarian violence against their community.
Violence flared after a rally on February 19 at which Orange district spokesperson David Jones threatened his men would escalate their protests in the coming months and demanded two marches down the Garvaghy Road. Even if an Orange march was forced down the Garvaghy Road this year, Orangemen would still be "one short", said Jones. "If they don't let us down the road before July", he said, "the situation is going to get very serious".
After the rally, a hundred-strong loyalist mob attacked RUC lines at the junction of Corcrain Bridge and Craigwell Avenue, throwing fireworks and using catapults to fire ball-bearings.
Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister-designate David Trimble has repeatedly refused to meet nationalist residents' representatives to discuss the Drumcree crisis. In January, County Armagh Orange grand master Denis Watson ruled out further proximity talks in a letter to British PM Tony Blair.
So far, the British and Irish governments have failed to fulfil their commitment under the Good Friday agreement to ensure freedom from sectarian harassment. In Portadown, more than 150 Orange marches have violated the Parade Commission's directives.
At a time of so-called peace, families living on the interfaces have been forced out of their houses. Catholic schoolchildren continue to be harassed and targeted in the town centre, and Catholic houses and businesses are bombed, attacked and burnt.
As the marching season draws closer, the tension is rising. The youth of the Garvaghy Road, despite targeted provocation and growing frustration, have managed to avoid retaliating. More Orange "protest" marches are planned for March 6 and 13. Members of the Portadown Orange Lodge have also signalled their intention to "strike" on March 10, the date set for devolution of powers from London to the Stormont assembly.
On February 23, a delegation representing the Garvaghy Road Residents' Coalition (GRRC) lobbied members of the Dublin parliament. They sought support for the British government to end the eight-month-old siege, which began following the Orange Order's failure to force the annual Drumcree march down Garvaghy Road last July.
The lack of political support from the major parties was highlighted during the meetings. "There is a need for more TDs [members of parliament] to come into Portadown and see what it is really like to be living there as a Catholic", said independent nationalist councillor Breandan MacCionnaith. The idea of an all-party delegation visit was put forward.
Dublin Sinn Féin councillor Christy Burke accompanied the Garvaghy Road representatives to a meeting with Lord Mayor Joe Doyle. The delegation later met with Irish PM Bertie Ahern and took part in a public meeting at Liberty Hall.
The delegation aimed to inform the people of Dublin and political representatives in the 26 Counties of the social consequences which the heightened tension, ongoing harassment and daily attacks in Portadown has for the 7000 nationalist residents.
"Little media or political attention has been focused on the situation in Portadown since July. If such an organised campaign of violent intimidation had been waged in Britain, mainland Europe or the United States in the same manner as that directed against Portadown's Catholic and nationalist community, an international outcry would have ensued", said MacCionnaith.
The Dublin visit was also designed to broaden the all-Ireland network of cooperation the GRRC is building to share skills, facilities and information. A solid link-up with community activists from Belfast has already been established and last weekend Garvaghy Road community activists met with counterparts from Derry.
[Abridged from RM-Distribution at <email@example.com>.]