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The BBC's David Eades
"The routine barrage of stones and bricks rained down"
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RUC chief superintendent, Brian McCargo
Protest organisers should realise the risk of demonstrations degenerating into disorder
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Tuesday, 11 July, 2000, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
Q & A: Drumcree protests

As Northern Ireland prepares for further Drumcree-related protests, the BBC's Ireland correspondent David Eades answers questions about the current crisis.

Why are there more protests this year than last year?

There are two main reasons. The first is that this time last year - when there were very few protests on this scale - the Portadown District Orange Lodge was in the middle of negotiating a deal with the prime minister.

The lodge's district master, Harold Gracey, visited Number 10 where he believed he was getting a sympathetic hearing from Mr Blair and could yet get a march in the months ahead.

Others at the same meeting were more sceptical, but it was enough to persuade Portadown District that negotiating remained the best tactic.

This year, Mr Gracey has said he regretted talking to the prime minister and warned him of the consequences of not getting a march down the Garvaghy Road.

But there is a second reason. Portadown District still wanted to enter into discussions with the Parades Commission, which rules on each and every contentious parade in the year.

But despite appealing to the Grand Lodge of Ireland to be allowed to do so, it was out-voted by other County Lodges who still believe ardently that they should not enter into dialogue with the Commission.

So Portadown's hands were tied to an extent, hence their call for widespread protest.

Orangemen, loyalists and unionists are complaining of a growing feel of alienation. They say their culture is being whittled away. Is this contributing to this year's unrest?

The language is hardly new; many of them have been saying that for years, as the power of the nationalists to fight their own corner has grown.

The RUC has become used to playing piggy-in-the-middle in these marching disputes

But certainly there is a sense among much of the Unionist comunity as a whole - and Orangemen in particular - that the peace process has demanded huge sacrifices by them, with precious little in return.

They also feel that the way the Parades Commission works means that where nationalist communities threaten large scale disruption, the commission has little choice but to impose restrictions on Orange marches.

There seems to be some evidence of a fracturing Protestant community. Orangemen in Londonderry and Fermanagh said they would not organise official protests. Are the protests exposing deeper fault-lines within the broad unionist family?

There is a difference between the unwillingness of some lodges to create disruptions in their own areas and the feeling that splits are emerging within the Orange Order as to how it should operate.

Many districts will be careful to do nothing which might draw attention to their own marching routes. Tradition is as valuable to one district as it is to another, and to put their traditional route in jeopardy by causing problems in the area will not be considered acceptable to many of them.

There are, though, apparent differences of opinion and approach. In the simplest form, the refusal of Harold Gracey to condemn the violence which has broken out across the province in recent days has dismayed many other Orangemen.

By and large, this is an organisation of god-fearing citizens, who believe in tolerance, in peace and in charity.

Secondly, though, some Orangemen believe that the issue of the parades is not the be-all-and-end-all of the organisation. And that, if the order is to survive, even thrive, then it must adapt.

Which is why some Orangemen have built up closer links with the Irish Republic, attempting to spread the word about what Orangeism stands for, and provide better access to the media.

Recently, though, eight members of the Order's Education Committee, who pushed hardest for such changes, resigned as they felt undermined by other colleagues.

The Portadown lodge of the Orange Order have called for the protests - but who is manning the road blocks? Are the protests supervised?

Yes, they are supervised during the hours defined by the Order. At the vast majority of roadblocks, you will spot at least one or two men in Orange sashes, effectively acting as stewards.

Their numbers are bolstered by local loyalist residents, and undoubtedly by paramilitary members as well in some areas; and that is often why the protests break out into violence later in the evenings.

The involvement of loyalist paramilitary figures such as convicted Ulster Freedom Fighters commander, Johnny Adair, has been a prominent feature of this year's protests. How has this affected support for the protests among Protestants and how have nationalists reacted to the involvement of such sinister figures?

The high profile of the paramilitaries has a mixed effect. I think it makes some people believe that this is the time to get out and add weight to the protests, to cause as much trouble as possible at a time when their way of life is under threat.

To force loyalists off the streets would be interpreted as a sop to nationalists. Many protests, while they may be illegal, are at least relatively peaceful

For many others, getting used to a new way of life here, where peace is the dominant mood, the presence of paramilitaries is a disturbing element, which adds to their sense of disgust in the protests themselves.

It has also done nothing for the reputation of the Orange Order as they are being linked to paramilitary activity.

As for nationalists, many of them believe this is the true colour of the Protestant Orange Order - they view the movement as bigoted, intolerant and supremacist; the paramilitary presence makes some believe they are growing increasingly desperate to protect the way things used to be.

Protesters who were recently shouting Save the RUC are now pelting them with stones and petrol bombs. How difficult does this make policing the current situation?

Very. The RUC has become used to playing piggy-in-the-middle in these marching disputes. The irony of their position seems lost on many loyalists, who feel that the force of the Crown has betrayed them by being prepared to police them over the marching issue.

It is particularly difficult on an individual level. The more threatening loyalists do their best to come face to face with police on the front lines, pointing them out and saying they know who they are and where they live.

Police have been criticised for not keeping main roads open. Is there a "softly-softly approach"? Can they do more or would firmer action make a bad situation worse?

Such is the nature of the marching season - in particular the climax in July - that there is very little the police could do to clear ALL streets and maintain order at the same time. This IS a highly politicised situation after all.

To force loyalists off the streets would be interpreted as a sop to nationalists. Many protests, while they may be illegal, are at least relatively peaceful, and the view of the RUC is that allowing them a bit of space is a small price to pay in the name of general law and order.

Firmer action comes into play every time the protests get out of hand. The message from the chief constable is that his forces will not tolerate violence.

In overall terms, is Northern Ireland at a standstill as a result of these protests?

Put it this way; while Northern Ireland has not ground to a standstill, there are times during the day when it is brought close to paralysis in many of the main towns.

It's worth bearing in mind that many people leave the province in any case at this time of year.

The images of trouble on the streets - coming at a time when people felt such scenes belonged to the past - will they have a serious effect on the tourist trade and overall sense of commercial confidence?

I think they are bound to. Not just for this year but for the next year as well. Having said that, the marching season does have an end and the protests tend to pass with it.

Big business will be more interested in the bigger picture anyway: the peace process. If that is moving forwards, then business will be prepared to invest time and money in Northern Ireland.

They know that the potential here is huge; even if the risk remains substantial.

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See also:

11 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
More roads blocked in NI
10 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Where the protests are
10 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Trimble rejects assembly recall
10 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Picture gallery: Loyalist protests
08 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Drumcree: The route of the march
10 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Sites of Orange protests
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