^Protestant Orangemen hope restraint pays off in dangerous week
^Eds: LEADS throughout to UPDATE with morning calm, ADD Blair comments. TRIMS. No pickup.
^AP Photo NY108
^By SHAWN POGATCHNIK= ^Associated Press Writer=
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) A surprise decision by Northern Ireland's biggest Protestant organization not to confront British security forces during a controversial parade has won rare praise from police and clergy.
``I think there was dignity, control, and in the eyes of the world they have done a great deal to redeem the good name of the Orange Order,'' said Archbishop Robin Eames, leader of the Anglican-affiliated Church of Ireland.
In recent years, Eames had watched with dismay as Orange leaders turned one of his churches near Portadown, 30 miles west of Belfast, into a bitter battleground with soldiers and police.
But on Sunday, when confronted by security forces determined to prevent them from parading from the church through the town's Catholic district, leaders instructed the more than 3,000 Orangemen to disperse the first time that's happened since the annual showdown began in 1995.
By this morning, only a few Protestants remained near the church. More remarkably, no arson attacks were reported anywhere in Northern Ireland, and in Belfast every road remained open to commuters.
Last year, the Orangemen mounted a mass weeklong standoff that triggered widespread Protestant rioting elsewhere, culminating in three young Catholic brothers being burned to death.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said today he was ``relieved it hasn't been worse'' so far this year.
In an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. radio, he raised the prospect of brokering talks between Portadown's Orange leaders and the Catholic protesters ``to arrange a situation where the traditions of both communities are respected.'' He praised what he called ``the considerable movement by the Orange Order and a genuine desire for dialogue'' an impression hotly disputed by the Catholic protesters.
Blair also urged the province's major Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, to accept his plan to rescue the troubled peace accord concluded on Good Friday of 1998.
The plan, published Friday after a week of intense but inconclusive negotiations, calls for the Ulster Unionists to form a new four-party government for Northern Ireland on July 15 that includes the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party. The Ulster Unionists have refused unless the Irish Republican Army starts to disarm.
Blair is seeking a compromise in which the government would be formed, and the IRA would make a statement within a few days of its intent to hand over or destroy its arsenal. Disarmament would begin within a few weeks.
In Portadown, Orange leaders believe their current policy of restraint is the best tactic to prevail versus the Catholic protesters on Garvaghy Road.
``The sooer it sinks into the prime minister that we have a right to walk along the road, the better,'' said a senior Orange official, County Armagh Grand Master Denis Watson.
Such high expectations, if dashed, could yet fuel serious trouble as Northern Ireland faces the most dangerous week on its calendar.
Blair said the Orangemen should stop refusing to talk directly with the protesters. Watson and other Orange leaders insist they won't because the protest leader is a former IRA prisoner.
The Orange Order, a fraternal group founded two centuries ago, stages more than 2,000 marches each July in a drum-thumping demonstration of Protestants' majority position in Northern Ireland.
The biggest Orange demonstrations come July 12, the anniversary of an important Protestant victory over a Catholic-led army in 1690. One parade is being organized in Portadown, the Orange Order's heartland.
(Copyright 1999 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)