Order attracts sinister elements
By Fern Lane
During what subsequent events have proved to be the calm before the storm in Portadown last Saturday afternoon, it felt very odd indeed to be able to drive into the Garvaghy Road in the run-up to a banned Orange march in an almost complete absence of any military or RUC presence. That this should feel strange is in itself a telling reflection on the conditions which the residents have been forced to endure over the past number of years. During the two Julys after the infamous forced march in 1997, when residents were beaten off the road in order to facilitate the Orange Order parade, anyone attempting to get in or out of the area during the weekend before 12 July `celebrations', either by car or on foot, had to negotiate their way through 20-foot high metal gates, huge concrete bollards, rolls of barbed and razor wire and wall-to-wall British Army personnel. That was before running the gauntlet of loyalist hatred, should they dare venture into the town centre.
Although the banning of the 2 July parade was initially considered less likely to spark massive protest by the Orange Order and their various supporters and hangers-on than that of the main event on 9 July, the amount of sectarian sabre-rattling, warnings of chaos and increasingly desperate pleadings for mass support by the Portadown District spokesmen in the weeks leading up to 2 July did seem to warrant more of a security presence at the Garvaghy Road interfaces than one, apparently deserted, RUC Land Rover sitting in the car park of the St John the Baptist chapel. For the first time in some five years, it was possible on the day before the Portadown's District's pre-12th march to drive out of the estate and past Drumcree Church without running into a police or army roadblock.
Given that the estate was so easily accessible, it was not surprising that the occupants of one or two cars which drove past the community centre or past the church into the estate should shout indistinct abuse and make gestures to anyone identified as the enemy - a finger drawn across the throat seemed to be the most frequently employed.
In the community centre itself, the atmosphere was also subtly different to previous years. Even though it was by no means completely certain that the Parades Commission would ban the march on 9 July, there was far less of that sense of palpable fear of what might happen during the night that characterised 1998 and 1999. After Mo Mowlam's betrayal of the residents in 1997, many of them had in the following two years felt compelled to wait up through several sleepless nights before and after the march, worrying about and preparing for the same thing to happen again.
It could be that there is a feeling that some kind of psychological shift has taken place in the British government towards the Orange Order, perhaps brought about by a practical realisation, long overdue, of just how difficult it is to deal with - and that its `loyalty' is little more than a figment of the imagination. It could also be a sense that, as well as the day to day struggle on the ground on Garvaghy Road, the wider moral and intellectual argument in respect of the right of nationalists not to have to put up with everything which goes with Orangeism has also been won. Even so, the relief when the determination of the Parades Commission was announced on Monday was tempered by anxiety about the wider effects of refusing the march, particularly on other small nationalist communities throughout the Six Counties if loyalist paramilitaries took it upon themselves to become directly involved.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, crown forces moved in to seal off the estate and the march itself passed off without incident. Members of the Orange Order were clearly told by their superiors not to repeat the antics of last year and, although it clearly was desperately difficult for many of them not to gesture at the church or hurl sectarian abuse at the residents as they passed by, they did manage to restrain themselves. But still some were not able to resist the deliberate intimidation of pointing video cameras at anyone standing in the grounds of the chapel. It was notable that the march was very much smaller than in previous years; the Portadown District has around 1,500 members and even the most generous estimate of the numbers on the parade could not have put the figure at more than that. Those gathering in the lane outside the church could also not have numbered more than a few hundred, a stark contrast to previous years, when the adjoining fields were a sea of orange.
The point at which things began to get a lot more ugly - reaching beyond the immediate environs of Portadown - was Monday evening, when the recently and unnaturally muscled Johnny Adair pitched up mob-handed with several dozen members of the UDA, complete with matching T-shirts and garish banner to offer their support to their friends in the Orange Order and to posture in front of RUC lines. That such a thing could be allowed to happen without any arrests being made is in itself an outrage, and although their appearance clearly has as much to do with the power struggles going on within the various strands of loyalism as with Drumcree itself, the message being sent out to Catholics all over the Six Counties was clear; more atrocities are in the making.
The Orange Order may not so far have been able to mobilise the masses as they have in previous years, but they continue to be able to attract the most sinister and dangerous elements of loyalism, who have made themselves available to conduct a campaign of terror against the residents of the Garvaghy Road and the wider nationalist population.