PORTADOWN, Northern Ireland – Police prevented a hard-line Protestant brotherhood from parading Sunday past the main Catholic part of this bitterly divided town for the ninth year in a row, but Orange Order leaders refused to accept they had been defeated.
Only about 500 members of the anti-Catholic fraternal group, donning their traditional orange vestments with silver pins, marched from central Portadown to an Anglican church on a hilltop called Drumcree that is the focal point for the annual parade. Orange Order leaders had applied for 2,000 members to march, but most didn't turn up.
Portadown's Orange Order leaders have refused to negotiate directly with the Catholic leaders of an anti-Orange group on the Garvaghy Road, which began trying to block the parade in 1995. The conflict over the Garvaghy Road — challenging British authorities to decide whether Protestant or Catholic rights should prevail — has mirrored Northern Ireland's struggle to forge a stable Catholic-Protestant government, the central goal of the 1998 peace deal for this British territory.
The leader of Portadown's Orangemen, District Master Darryl Hewitt, offered no hint Sunday that the group was willing to enter face-to-face negotiations as a British-appointed Parades Commission has demanded. That joint Catholic-Protestant board since 1998 has barred the parade from the Garvaghy Road, a broad boulevard featuring public housing projects with anti-British and anti-Orange murals on their walls.
Instead Hewitt told supporters, who gathered near lines of police preventing them from marching towards the Catholic area, that the problem lay with those Protestants — including a top-ranking Portadown Orangeman — who had joined the Parades Commission. He repeated traditional Orange Order policy that the group would not negotiate with the commission, nor with the Catholic groups that oppose their parades, a position abandoned elsewhere in Northern Ireland.
"The call must go out today from this platform, and indeed from Drumcree Hill, for so-called Protestants who are members of the 'No Parades Commission' to back their culture, heritage and traditions or else do the honorable thing and resign from this biased, discriminatory, anti-parading body," Hewitt said.
But the crowd quickly dispersed to their waiting cars without violence. Many planned to head home to watch the Wimbledon tennis tournament men's final on television, then the World Cup soccer final.
It was a far cry from the crisis of years past, when the showdown on Drumcree Hill pushed Northern Ireland to the brink of civil war.
Protestant rioters and road-blockers caused violence, destruction and intimidation across Northern Ireland in 1996 and 1998 when police blocked the Portadown Orangemen. But the threat of mob violence has dissipated each year since, as even the most stubborn Orangemen recognize they will not be permitted to march from the church back into Portadown via Garvaghy Road unless they negotiate.
Garvaghy Road Catholics, who once mobilized by the hundreds to confront Orangemen and the predominantly Protestant police force that once escorted the Orangemen through, were notable in their absence Sunday as the Protestants passed St. John's Catholic Church — the nearest point that the restricted parade came to the Garvaghy Road.
"We have said for the past two years to the Parades Commission ... that Drumcree is a dead issue and it should be allowed to rest in peace," said Breandan Mac Cionnaith, leader of the Garvaghy Road protesters. His group says the Orangemen should never be allowed down Garvaghy Road again, whereas the commission has signaled that parades would be approved if Orange leaders negotiate.