A decision to allow the anti-Catholic Orange Order to gather in a public park surrounded by Catholic homes in Portadown has been described as ‘an act of unionist political madness’ by the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition (GRRC).
The move by unionist-dominated Craigavon council has raised tensions in the area ahead of the Protestant marching season. Loyalist protests in Portadown connected to the flags issue in recent months have already increased fears of local residents.
In the late 1990’s, the town became infamous for the serious violence which resulted from efforts by the Orangemen and their loyalist supporters to force sectarian parades through the nationalist enclave without the consent of residents.
Despite being refused permission for their annual Drumcree march since 1996, loyalists have always vowed to march down the road.
A ‘prayer service’ is now being planned to mark the ‘mini-Twelfth’, a prominent event in the Orange calendar in early July. The park lies between the nationalist Garvaghy Road and Obins Street, two roads which saw the most serious clashes before the provocative parades were eventually re-routed by the Parade Commission. The tackling of the Drumcree and related loyalist violence -- which saw one Catholic shot, another killed by a blast bomb and three children burned to death -- remains the Parade Commission’s only real success story to date.
However, that has now been jeopardised by the decision of councillors to allow a mini-Twelfth parade involving up to 4,000 Orangemen in tandem with the event in the People’s Park. It is feared over a thousand Orangemen and their loyalist supporters may now attempt to march down the Garvaghy Road to the park.
In a statement, a GRRC spokesperson said the decision was “nothing less than an act of unionist political madness”.
“This overtly political and sectarian decision will unnecessarily stoke up tensions in the town,” the group said.
“The nationalist community in Portadown has never experienced any positive relationships with the Orange Order...
“Certainly, Craigavon Council’s so-called community relations and good relations policies lie in tatters in the aftermath of tonight’s decision.”
The council had failed to take into account the views of community organisations in the area, or its own legal and human rights obligations, they said.
SDLP Upper Bann Assembly member Dolores Kelly accused Orangemen of “stirring up tensions”.
Sinn Fein councillor Johnny McGibbon said he had met the Parades Commission and police to “ensure they are prepared for any attempt at an illegal procession to the park”.
He pointed that two Ulster Unionist Party ouncillors had also opposed the “utterly foolish” decision, which was backed by the more hardline DUP.
“The Orange Order stated publically, before the matter had even been debated, that they were making an application to test the Council. This displayed quite clearly that the Order had made a decision to use a religious service as a cover for political activity, in an attempt to impose themselves on the public park.
“The Orange Order must recognise that they do not have a positive relationship with the nationalist residents of Portadown. Shared space does not mean abused space and there has to be discussion around all of the issues which directly impact on local residents.”
He said the decision was an attempt by unionists to exert their domination of Craigavon council.
“We have met with the Parades Commission and the PSNI over recent days to ensure they are prepared for any attempt at an illegal procession to the park, on the same night as the Mini-Twelfth.
“It is time for unionism and the Orange Order to recognise the rights of nationalist residents in Portadown.”
Meanwhile, it was revealed that some northern politicians are to be invited by the PSNI to ‘private talks’ in Wales next week to discuss the marches issue.
The talks are being held in Cardiff following a mounting crisis over the failure of both politicians and police to ensure loyalists in Belfast abide by the legally-binding determinations of the Parades Commission.
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton said the key objective in the talks was to “discuss opportunities to develop police and community relationships and to build effective partnerships which will help support communities and policing”.
And separately, the First and Deputy First Ministers announced the setting up of an all-party working group to discuss flags, parades and how to deal with the past, and renewed a vow to remove so-called ‘peace lines’, the high walls constructed to reduce violence at sectarian interfaces in Belfast and elsewhere.
“This is probably the most ambitious set of proposals that have ever been brought forward in terms of a shared future,” said First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson.
“I believe it really will take us into a new era in terms of how we move forward as a united society.”
The announcement was made after DUP Minister Sammy Wilson provocatively ordered the British Union Jack to be flown at five more government buildings in the North.
One of the flag poles is to be raised outside the offices of nationalist SDLP environment minister Alex Attwood.
Mr Attwood said: “This proposal raises again fundamental questions about Sammy Wilson’s and the DUP’s judgment and their priorities in government, whatever minister Wilson might claim his legal powers to be.
“The DUP is making a bad situation worse. We should be working through the flags issue wisely and together. There are ways we can.”