Blair Stands Firm With Protestants

In a London meeting with leaders of Northern Ireland's Protestant Orange Order, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Protestant group that he would not reverse a ban preventing them from marching through a Catholic neighborhood.

The four-member Orange Order delegation was pressing Blair to reverse a decision banning the Protestant fraternal brotherhood's march through a Catholic area of Portadown in central Northern Ireland. Blair had already said he would not overturn the ruling.

The two sides were meeting for the first time since Sunday, when Orangemen paraders were stopped at Drumcree outside Portadown and prevented from marching along the Catholic Garvaghy Road. They have since set up camp outside the town, facing barricades manned by 2,000 police and British troops. They have said they will stay there a year if necessary to exercise their right to march down the traditional route.

Hours prior to the London talks, police blocking the Protestant marchers at a rural church field fired plastic bullets to repel protesters who briefly broke through a security line. No injuries were reported.

"We are greatly concerned about the situation in our province," said the Rev. William Bingham, a member of a the Orange Order delegation.

A spokesman for Blair said the meeting was friendly, but acknowledged the situation was very difficult. "[Blair] is not in a position to reverse the decision of the Parades Commission," the spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Neither side budged, but Bingham said channels of communication will remain open over the next few days.

Many people fear an escalation of the violence this weekend as Protestants celebrate the July 12th anniversary of a Protestant victory over Catholics at the 1690 Battle of the Boyne.

A total of 554 marches are scheduled across Northern Ireland, and thousands more Orangemen are expected to flock to Drumcree. Protestants see their marching as a civil right. Catholics consider it a smug, sectarian insult.

Orange Order leaders, upset at clashes between protesters and the mainly Protestant police force, appealed for calm and accused unidentified groups of orchestrating violence to undermine their position.

Northern Ireland endured a fourth night of violence Wednesday with police coming under gunfire and bomb attacks at a Protestant housing area in Newtownabbey, 5 miles north of Belfast. No injuries were reported and police arrested one man.

Police seized gas bombs in Carrickfergus, 12 miles northeast of Belfast, and bottles of concentrated nitric acid in Glarryford, 30 miles northwest of Belfast. Police said they believed the acid was intended to be used against them.

As of midday Wednesday, police reported:

  • A dozen shootings
  • Two dozen grenade blasts
  • 73 homes of Catholics or police officers vandalized
  • 93 businesses and schools damaged by fire
  • 136 vehcles stolen and burned and another 279 damaged
  • 44 officers and an unknown number of rioters wounded
"I think we are moving into a very, very dangerous situation whereby we could even come to the stage of a complete confrontation between the Orange and the army and police," David Jones, a spokesman for the Orange Order in Portadown, said Wednesday.