TO THE Catholics of Portadown, the loyalists' annual march from Drumcree church is a supremacist ritual. But the Orange Order must have their historic parade. If they do not, they betray their forebears and their own identity.
The problem of Northern Ireland is a heady brew of history, geography, religion and nationality, of rival rights and allegiances, of competition for power and territory, of deep bitterness. Drumcree combines all of these in the most difficult way possible.
It is only one road, it is only one march, but it encapsulates all the most difficult elements in the sharpest way. To most outsiders, various compromises suggest themselves: have a parade but make it as quick and as inoffensive as possible; or ban the parade, endure a dignified protest and go off and enjoy the rest of the summer.
Up close it all looks so different. This is the fourth Drumcree, and the first three have had such an impact locally that nothing is simple any more; every detail has become charged with huge political significance, every compromise loaded with connotations of weakness and surrender.
The past three years have been awful for everyone except those who revel in conflict and who see life as an endless struggle against the other side: unfortunately, there are many of these in Portadown. The next few days will provide a key test of whether the new spirit of partnership emerging elsewhere in Northern Ireland can penetrate local layers of intransigence.
Estate agents say the price of a house is determined by three things: location, location and location. Ask a Portadown Orangeman why getting down the Garvaghy Road is so vital and you will receive three explanations: tradition, tradition and tradition. Failing to maintain the route would clearly amount to letting down all those past generations who managed it.
The local bosses lack what might be called the vision thing. Their own histories laud those district grand masters who stood firm and got their marches through. The present DGM, Harold Gracey, has been an uncompromising rock in classic Orange mould, railing against Jesuit priests and promising to camp out at Drumcree ``for as long as it takes'' to have the march put through.
The Jesuits he referred to have a house off Garvaghy Road, providing an element of guidance for a Catholic community which, like the Protestants, has lacked creative leadership. Catholics have always been a minority in the town, though further south in Armagh county they predominate. In Portadown they regard themselves as very much a victim community, a small put-upon island of green stranded in a sea of Orange.
Many wound up in Garvaghy Road after being intimidated out of other parts of the town. They see themselves as an unwilling but essential element in the pageantry of Orangeism, believing the order's rites are essentially supremacist and would not be complete without the ritual humiliation of some Catholics.
Last year and in 1996 the parade was pushed through by thousands of police officers in anti-riot gear who cleared Garvaghy Road to let the marchers through. In strict policing terms this made sense, for if the parade is going through it is important to keep the two sides apart.
All this may give an impression of the various elements forever enacting the same bitter tableau year after year, without variation, but the fact is that there have been highly significant changes in the character of the dispute. At one time, the marches may have been, as Catholics claim, an annual display of Orange superiority and domination. But recent decades have not been happy times for unionism, with the steady growth of nationalist power, influence and numbers. In recent years, the parades have taken on a character of Protestant consolation, expressing not jubilation in unionist ascendancy but a sense that at least one parade can be got through, even if so much else has been lost.
This was best summed up by one of those Garvaghy Jesuits, Fr Brian Lennon, when he said: ``Protestants have been under pressure since 1968, and they have lost power and status to a far greater extent than many Catholics realise. As a result, they're afraid of their whole identity being abolished completely because for all that they've lost, they haven't been given any peace or any stability.''
The last three Drumcrees can therefore be seen as Orange attempts to draw a line in the sand to prevent what they see as more of their heritage draining away. Tony Blair flew into Belfast yesterday to attempt to convince both the Orange Order and the Garvaghy residents that a compromise of some sort would not permanently damage the rights of either.
It would be tremendously helpful if Portadown Orangemen regarded the Good Friday agreement and the new Trimble-Mallon partnership as useful safeguards of their tradition. But many of them plainly do not, having just elected their county grand master to the Assembly on an anti-Trimble ticket.
In public, the Orange leaders adopt the rigid position that the march must get down the road come what may, but most of them have their own private fears about what could happen. In 1996, which was the mother of all Drumcrees, the march got through but at a cost of disturbances on a scale so huge it called into question the very stability of the North.
The thought has taken root that 1996 was a Pyrrhic victory, and that all but the real fanatics would be dismayed by a repetition. But although this is a strong factor, it has to date remained secondary to the traditional imperative of marching.
Tony Blair will need all his skill to convince the two sides both sets of rights are being respected, that compromise is not defeat, and that there exists a middle way which respects the pride and dignity of all.
Independent News Service