Tension grows as Drumcree Orangemen increase activity
There is growing concern in nationalist areas of Portadown that Orangemen and their supporters have embarked on a campaign to heighten the profile of their protest at Drumcree church.
It is now almost five months since the Orangemen of Portadown district were prevented from marching down the Garvaghy Road. Since then, the Orangemen have maintained a constant presence at the Co Armagh church, operating a round-the-clock vigil from a caravan which they use as a mobile headquarters.
In recent weeks the numbers of Orangemen attending the nightly protest had averaged little more than 100. However, since last Monday there has been a sudden upsurge in the numbers of protesters at Drumcree. Every evening last week some 300 to 400 Orangemen and their supporters accompanied by loyalist bands took part in protests which continued into the early hours of the morning. There have been reports of fireworks being thrown at police lines. At least two policemen have been injured and one police Land-Rover damaged in the attacks.
The sudden increase in activity in Drumcree has heightened tension in the Garvaghy Road area. Many residents are fearful that Orangemen will try and force their way down the road in the run-up to Christmas.
A local Sinn Fein Assembly member, Ms Dara O'Hagan, accused the Orangemen of deliberately setting out to heighten tension. Ms O'Hagan said: "These actions are intended to intimidate the people of the Garvaghy Road. Once again the Orangemen have shown they're not prepared to try and resolve this issue. They would be better employed engaging in positive, constructive dialogue with local residents rather than raise tension in the area".
Brendan Mac Cionnaith, spokesman for the Garvaghy Road residents, said it was his belief that the Orangemen at Drumcree were engaged in testing the reaction times of the RUC to incidents at the church. He also said that on at least one occasion last week the Orangemen had managed to march to within 100 metres of the Garvaghy Road before being halted by police.
Meanwhile, a United States judge, Mr Andy Summers, president of the Irish-American Unity Conference, spent yesterday in Portadown talking to the residents of the town's nationalist areas. Judge Summers is currently touring Northern Ireland on a fact-finding mission on policing. He said he was "shocked to find that so much fear and anxiety existed in the nationalist community".
Judge Summers added that as far as he was concerned "the police and loyalist gangs act without accountability. My concepts of democracy have been offended". The Irish-American Unity Conference, which returns to the US today, plans to hold a series of public meetings in the US before returning to Portadown to complete its inquiry. It will then present its findings to the Patten Committee, which is currently studying the future of policing in Northern Ireland.