Archive for Monday, July 10, 2000

N. Ireland tensions reach explosive pitch

July 10, 2000


— Offering bitter words but no violence, an estimated 3,000 Protestant hard-liners marched Sunday to a British army barricade that prevented them from parading through the main Catholic district of this fiercely Protestant town.

Compounding intercommunal tensions, a car bomb planted by Irish Republican Army dissidents detonated in front of a police station in Stewartstown, 10 miles north of Portadown. The blast wounded a policewoman in the leg and demonstrated that extremists on both sides want to tear apart Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord.

So I would say to our people: Continue.Portadowns senior Orangeman, Harold Gracey, encouraging Protestants to keep up their rioting

In Portadown, leaders of the Orange Order, Northern Ireland's major Protestant fraternal group, promised they would eventually get their way and march down disputed Garvaghy Road by wearing down British authorities through mass civil disobedience. That tactic worked in 1996, but Britain has insisted it won't cave in this time, a message reinforced by the 2,000 soldiers reinforcing police units in Portadown.

Standing on a podium in front of the 20-foot-high steel wall blocking their intended path, Portadown's senior Orangeman, Harold Gracey, denied responsibility for encouraging the Protestant riots of recent days -- then in the same breath called for even more intense demonstrations starting today.

Gracey noted that previous British governments had been forced to change their policies when faced with street mayhem. "So I would say to our people: Continue," he said to an approving roar.

The annual collision at Portadown -- where Orangemen insist they have the right to free assembly and Catholic residents proclaim their right to live free of sectarian harassment -- has defied solution for years and triggered widespread violence regardless of whether security forces blocked the parade or forced it through.

The Orange Order, which represents a sizable chunk of Protestant opinion opposed to the 1998 accord, has refused to meet Garvaghy Road residents since militants there first blocked the Orangemen's parade route in 1995. Orangemen cite the IRA background of the Catholic protest leader, Breandan MacCionnaith, as justification for refusing direct talks.

Sunday's car bomb attack in Stewartstown heightened many Protestants' belief that the IRA itself remained committed -- despite its 1997 cease-fire -- to the abolition of Northern Ireland as a Protestant-majority state linked with Britain.

Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, commander of the province's police force, said the car bomb outside the Stewartstown police station had been planted by a dissident group dubbed the Real IRA.

That faction, representing IRA members opposed to the 1997 cease-fire, officially proclaimed a cease-fire after committing the single deadliest terrorist strike in Northern Irish history -- the 1998 car bombing of the religiously mixed town of Omagh that killed 29 people.

On Sunday, as marchers reached the razor-wire barricade set up at Garvaghy Road, several Protestants accompanying the Orange march spotted MacCionnaith leading a Catholic crowd.

"You IRA scum certainly go out of your way to be offended," shouted one woman.

"We can't get to you now, Breandan, but a bullet'll get you someday," said a teen-age boy.

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