Orangemen's parade begins pivotal week in Northern Ireland quest for peace
July 12, 1999
BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The colorful march of Protestant Orangemen on Monday launches a crucial week in Northern Ireland, where Protestants and Catholics may begin a brave new world of power-sharing -- or remain in a limbo of mistrust.
Orangemen in the province will march through towns and villages for their "12th of July" celebrations, the climax of the annual "marching season" which many Catholics resent. In the past, such marches have been a prelude to violence.
The marches commemorate the victory of King William of Orange, a Protestant, over the forces of King James, a Catholic, at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Catholics regard the parades as swaggering displays, a reminder of the days when Protestant politicians had a stranglehold on power in the province.
Also on Monday, the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair is scheduled to unveil crucial draft legislation detailing how a new government planned for the province -- in which Catholics and Protestants are to share power -- would operate.
Thursday is the deadline for both sides of the province's sectarian divide to accept the outline for a new government, which was brokered by the British and Irish governments.
If key parties, particularly the powerful pro-British Protestant unionists, fail to back the plan, Britain and Ireland face the prospect of a major review of the accord that could take them back to square one.
Rival parties are still sniping at each other, showing that old suspicions are still alive and well in province, whose 1.6 million residents are about 60 percent Protestant and 40 percent Catholic.
The most immediate effect if there is no agreement by Thursday would be a continuation of the present method of administering the province by direct rule from London.
"We will never have a better chance (of peace) this generation, of that I have absolutely no doubt," said Blair, underlining the fragility of a deal that is meant to heal old wounds in the divided province.
Political analysts say the plan "will go to the wire" and that progress depends on whether David Trimble, head of the Ulster Unionist Party, accepts the British and Irish proposals that so far have fallen far short of what he wants.
Trimble says current peace proposals are flawed. But despite his hard-line stance, some analysts feel he may just be adopting a negotiating position and could yet agree to the package if he can win concessions.
The UUP has given the plan a frosty response and has announced it will give an 11th hour verdict on the plan only on Wednesday. Its key demands are that the Irish Republican Army make a firm pledge to disarm and that its political wing, Sinn Fein, will incur penalties if it does not.
The UUP wants the IRA to immediately hand in its cache of arms and explosives that fueled a 30-year war against British rule, even perhaps putting them on a hillside or a boat far out to sea and blowing them up in a symbolic sign of an end to violence.
Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern set Thursday as the deadline for progress after they led five grueling days of talks with the rival groups that ended in deadlock last week.
The Blair-Ahern plan entails the immediate creation of a Protestant-Catholic coalition administration, followed by the start of IRA disarmament and its completion by May 2000.
Ominously, the IRA has kept silent on the deal, spurning widespread demands from politicians, including Ahern, for a public commitment on scrapping weapons.
Sinn Fein says there must be no bid to exclude them from the new Northern Ireland government even if there is no commitment to disarm by the IRA.
"If that device is used against Sinn Fein it will be like firing an Exocet missile at the peace process itself," a high-level source in Sinn Fein said.
Britain and Ireland are urging Trimble to back the plan and "jump first," saying they are sure the IRA will come through with a statement on disarmament.
But merging brinkmanship and hard-ball negotiating, Trimble says he needs cast-iron guarantees, otherwise he and the peace process would be heavy losers.
"If I gamble and the gamble is a mistake, then we lose the (peace) process, and we lose the current leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party," he said.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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