N. Ireland Opponents Hold Talks
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Protestant marchers and their Catholic opponents began indirect talks Saturday in hopes of defusing a standoff that has spilled over into gun and bomb attacks that increasingly have focused on police.
After six bruising nights of Protestant violence, members of the Orange Order _ blocked since Sunday from parading down Garvaghy Road in Portadown _ started negotiating through intermediaries with the road’s resolute Catholic residents.
But after the talks adjourned Saturday with no agreement, the Orangemen announced they had made a second application to march down the road on Sunday. Normally, applications must be made at least seven days in advance.
``If this application is turned down, then the Parades Commission must take full responsibility for any violence at Drumcree,″ Orange Order spokesman David Jones said.
The commission said it would call an emergency meeting to consider the application.
The indirect talks, which went six hours Saturday, adjourned until an unspecified time sometime after Sunday.
No details of the discussions were announced, leaving police to fear tensions would peak this weekend with the 12th of July holiday, the annual Protestant celebration of the defeat of Catholic King James II by King William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
The streets of Belfast began emptying Saturday afternoon in anticipation of more trouble, and thousands of Orangemen swelled the increasingly impatient ranks behind steel and barbed-wire barricades in Portadown.
The situation outside the Orangemen’s rural Anglican church was deteriorating, with protesters using children to cut the wire, Assistant Chief Constable Tom Craig said Saturday.
``They’re trying to get within range where they can kill police officers,″ he said.
Breandan MacCionnaith, the spokesman for the Garvaghy Road residents, said eventual face-to-face discussions with the Orangemen would be an ``essential element″ to a lasting solution to the problems in Portadown, about 25 miles southwest of Belfast.
But he sounded anything but conciliatory before the indirect talks began through emissaries selected by Prime Minister Tony Blair.
``If the Orange Order thinks this community can be broken through intimidation and terror, they will have to think again,″ he said.
The Orangemen had rebuffed numerous offers from MacCionnaith to talk, objecting to his status as a former IRA prisoner and insisting they had a historic right to march on any public highway.
But they finally acquiesced to indirect negotiations Friday at the urging of Blair, who warned that authorities would continue to enforce a government-appointed commission’s ruling blocking the marchers from advancing.
The only way the march could proceed on Garvaghy Road, Blair said, is through an agreement between marchers and residents.
In 1996, police and soldiers initially stopped the march but backed down after four nights of Protestant violence across the province. Last year, police clubbed protesters off the road to let the Orangemen through.
Police said at least 64 members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary had been injured in 569 attacks since Sunday.
Police at the Portadown barricades were attacked Friday night and fired 475 plastic bullets in return that injured 20 protesters, including a 26-year-old man who was in critical condition and a 21-year-old woman who lost an eye.
``There was a continual barrage of thunderflash devices and large fireworks fired horizontally at police,″ Assistant Chief Constable Chris Albiston said. ``Ball bearings were fired from catapults and a number of petrol bombs and blast bombs were thrown.″
No security force members were hurt.
David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, the province’s largest Protestant Party, said the trick for negotiators would be letting both sides walk away with a sense of victory.
``The important thing is that we get the matter resolved in a way that enables both sides to feel that their rights have been vindicated,″ said Trimble, newly elected first minister of the Belfast Assembly, a linchpin of the April 10 Northern Ireland peace agreement.
While the agreement is a mammoth achievement, the pact is fragile. On Friday, police in London and Ireland arrested 10 people linked to Irish Republican Army dissidents who allegedly were preparing to plant bombs in the city.