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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland:
Stepping back from the brink

(July 1998)

From The Socialist [UK], No. 72, 17 July 1998.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The horrific murder of three young boys in Ballymoney appears to have been the shock that pulled Northern Ireland back from the brink last weekend.

Until the arson attack which killed the three young boys, all sides – especially the British government – seemed to have run out of options to stop an increasingly desperate situation becoming worse. The British government organised proximity talks had been postponed without any progress until after the 12–13 July.

The tragic death of the children undoubtedly restrained those who were preparing the way for a potentially bloody confrontation on 12 July.

Orange Splits

Although, for now, the mood seems to be more subdued, all the unresolved issues that led to the stand-off at Drumcree are still there and have come out more openly.

Even if the British government temporarily succeeds in containing the Portadown Orange Order’s protest at Drumcree, the stand-off has brought to the fore a split that has been festering within the Orange Order.

Up to 50,000–60,000 loyalists were expected to gather at Drumcree over the 12 July holiday. The British army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) almost admitted that there was very little they could do to contain such a sustained attempt to break their barricades and stop the march going along the Garvaghy Road, without lives being lost.

Even if the situation would have been held it would have been at the price of completely wrecking the continuation of the Good Friday peace agreement and the setting up of the Assembly. For now, the unfortunate deaths of three young children has given working-class people in Northern Ireland a chance to reassert pressure to stop a sectarian conflagration developing.

The leaders of the Portadown Orange Order appear now to have a more openly political agenda, which could lead to the breaking up of the Ulster Unionist Party led by Northern Ireland’s First Minister David Trimble. It is still unclear whether Trimble will actually be able to command a majority when the Assembly meets in September, especially if the Portadown Orangemen are still camped at Drumcree.

UUP MP and Assembly member Jeffrey Donaldson has again warned of establishing a new unionist unity which would entail wrecking the official unionist party. On the other side there are some leading figures in the Orange Order and the Unionist Party, like John Taylor, who recognise that the intransigence of the Portadown Lodge is isolating and losing them support.

Taylor has called on the Orange Order to negotiate directly with residents and it is now likely that, under growing public pressure, the Order will have to change its policy on this. It is even possible that new proximity talks may end in a compromise at Drumcree. However, the overall issue still needs to be resolved. This year has shown that the Parades Commission is no answer. In some ways, by appearing to offer an alternative to local dialogue, it makes things worse.

Local negotiation and local agreement is the only way to resolve the problem.

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Last updated: 19 July 2015