Simon Adams, President of the West Australian branch of Australian Aid for Ireland (a republican solidarity group) is the first Australian to be invited to Ireland to act as an international observer of the loyalist marching season. Here, he gives his impressions so far.
As the first Australian to be invited over by the Garvaghy Road Residents' Coalition to act as an international observer for the Drumcree dispute, I prepared myself by reading various books about the Orange Order. I also discussed the marching season with fellow members of Australian Aid for Ireland who had immigrated from Portadown and with relatives in Belfast. As such, I considered myself not unprepared for what I would see on the Garvaghy Road.
However, no book or television image could adequately prepare me for the Orange parade that stomped past the top of the Garvaghy Road last Sunday. I stood with residents as about 1,500 Orangemen marched to the beat of a solitary drum. Between us and them was a solid line of at least 50 armoured jeeps, soldiers in combat fatigues, RUC men dressed in riot gear and dogs - just in case. Residents trying to attend Mass had to wind their way past the soldiers and dogs in order to get into the chapel. Orangemen and their supporters occasionally glared through the lines of armed men at us.
Although there was no violence that morning, there was something deeply disturbing about the scene I witnessed. Coming from Australia, I am not accustomed to seeing grown men march in formation with swords and bowler hats. The truth is, knowing what the Orange Order represents, in real life they don't look ridiculous to me - they look menacing. The silence only made the situation seem somehow more ominous. I kept thinking of Robert Hamill, kicked to death in the town centre less than a mile away, and of the three Quinn boys, murdered in Ballymoney so that the Orange Order might get down the Garvaghy Road.
Later that afternoon, a riot started up at the Drumcree Church and I watched through binoculars as loyalists threw stones at the RUC. Down in the Garvaghy Road residents' centre everyone was analysing the day's events and trying to guess what would happen next. The hospitality and humility of ordinary people there, who welcomed me into their homes and fed me, was genuinely touching. Outside, children were playing hurley, oblivious to the Army helicopter hovering over Drumcree church and the rioting. I couldn't help but hope that the Orange Order would just walk away from Drumcree and allow these children to enjoy their lives without soldiers and sectarian parades. They deserve nothing less. Tóg slí eile.