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Monday, 29 May, 2000, 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK
Unionism's dissenting voices
A Portadown Orange Order flag
Portadown Orange flag: "Here we stand we can do no other"
By BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani in Belfast

It takes 11 minutes to walk down the predominantly nationalist area of Garvaghy Road in Portadown.

Portadown Orange lodge has been trying for around 700 days to follow the same route and continue to do so every Sunday.

An Orange Order member wearing the sash
Orange Order: Members oppose UUP policy
They are stopped every time by a Royal Ulster Constabulary line enforcing a ruling that banned the annual Drumcree march.

The Sunday following the Ulster Unionist Council's historic vote to return to power-sharing with Sinn Fein was no exception.

The struggle over the right to walk the route or the right to stop the march is the peace process's most infamous flashpoint.

Come the first Sunday in July and no agreement, the one nervous-looking RUC officer holding the line may be replaced by hundreds of colleagues and barbed wire as thousands of Orangemen attempt to march the route.

Divided family

While the members insist that it is a local dispute, the protest has become inextricably linked to the peace process.

Not only do the order's members represent a substantial swathe of unionism, they are formally tied with the Ulster Unionists through their huge presence on the party's ruling council.

They remain the most visible sign of the division at the heart of unionism.

When the former party leader Lord Molyneaux urged the party council to reject the Trimble proposals last November, his letter to delegates was also signed by Robert Saulters, head of the Orange Order.

Six months later, some of UUP leader David Trimble's most vehement opponents were again Orange Order members.

David Trimble will pay a heavy electoral price for this vote

Anti-agreement delegate, Saturday 27 May
But David Jones, spokesman for the Portadown lodge, said that the mood among the wider unionist family was one of anger.

"There is a drive to stop a continued split in unionism," he said.

"But a lot of people say that the split has been caused by David Trimble.

"Whatever form of new unionism that he is looking for, he may be moving too quickly.

"He has lost touch with grassroots opinion. That may be to his detriment."

Angry scenes

But at Saturday's council meeting there was a small but vocal group of anti-agreement protesters, fewer in number than in November when the party first agreed to power-sharing.

An anti-agrement unionist in Belfast
Anti-agreement unionists want 'realignment'
Screaming treachery, some protesters threw coins at delegates, prompting one council member to return the gesture with v-signs and a mocking sneer.

One former RUC officer in the no camp spoke of his "sheer despondency" at unionism's direction.

He had voted yes to the Good Friday Agreement but had now withdrawn his support.

"This is not what we voted for in 1998," he said. "The RUC are being stripped of their dignity.

"The terrorists may as well be taking their weapons into Stormont because that's what the party has voted for."

Another protester on Saturday was Willie Frazer. Mr Frazer, who founded Families Acting for Innocent Relatives (Fair), a South Armagh-based pressure group, chained himself to the railings at Downing Street and then staged a short hunger strike outside Stormont last year over Sinn Fein's inclusion in government.

Willie Frazer, opponent of David Trimble's policy
Frazer: November 1999 protest
He said his stand is not based on sectarianism, but the fact that the IRA killed his father, two uncles and two cousins and has attempted to "ethnically cleanse" South Armagh.

What has happened to the Ulster Unionist's principle of "no guns, no government?" he asks.

"There's never been a settlement, just a breathing space in the war against us," he said.

"We no longer have any leverage to negotiate, unionism has capitulated.

"All I ever asked for was for someone to guarantee my family peace.

"Am I now to spend the rest of my days looking over my shoulder, wondering if I am next?"

Road ahead

The no camp is already predicting that Mr Trimble will pay a "heavy electoral price" at local and a possible general election next year.

Unless the republicans come up with all their promises and deliver, that margin of support will evaporate

UUP negotiator Sir Reg Empey
The Reverend Ian Paisley of the anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party has already sought to capitalise on these divisions, calling for a "broad realignment" of unionism and lobbying UUP assembly members known to oppose Mr Trimble.

One Trimble ally, Sir Reg Empey, has already said that members are "stretched to the limit and in many cases beyond" and their faith will be tested by what the IRA delivers.

Mr Trimble will be seeking to prove that republicans will deliver on decommissioning while he delivers on workable government and winning the battle over the renaming of the RUC.

He is also thought to be planning to bolster his position by attempting to water down the Orange Order's influence within the party.

His supporters say that the leader must be given a chance.

The party's stance does not come from capitulation but from the compromise that is necessary day-in and day-out in normal mature politics.

They believe that the benefits of a normalising political environment will play into their hands.

One ordinary Trimble supporter who had come to cheer him on Saturday said: "For three months when the assembly was going the news was so boring, it was wonderful."

But it isn't just the Ulster Unionists who fear that they have stretched their constituency too far.

Republican splits

Sinn Fein's president Gerry Adams has made clear to his political opponents that there is unease among republican grassroots following the IRA's statement to put arms "verifiably and completely beyond use".

One former IRA commander, Brendan Hughes, warned that "the republican leadership has always exploited our loyalty."

Such is Northern Ireland politics, it may be worth remembering that Mr Trimble is not the only leader who may have a rough time keeping everyone on board.

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See also:

29 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Trimble and Mallon call for unity
28 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Vote deepens unionist rifts
27 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Returning to power
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