Belfast Ponders the Brink

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BELFAST, Northern Ireland: Perhaps the habit of violence can be changed after all. With the standoff in Portadown ready to turn into a massive weekend eruption, Protestant would-be marchers and the Catholic residents they would march past were talking Friday -- through intermediaries -- about a compromise. "Northern Ireland has run to the edge of the abyss, looked over, and decided they don't really want to jump," says TIME London bureau chief Barry Hillenbrand in Belfast. "The fact they're talking, even indirectly, is an amazing accomplishment."

The problem: Where, between marching and not marching, is there any room for compromise? "If I knew that, I'd be the Northern Ireland Secretary," says Hillenbrand. "It's a conflict of two rights: The right to march and the right to have peace and quiet." The key to any agreement may turn out to be common courtesy. "Perhaps the Orange will march, but play down the fife-and-drum aspect, or march without banners," he says. But Hillenbrand warns that "this is the make-or-break weekend." Sunday is the anniversary of the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic King James II in 1690 -- which leaves both sides until then to defuse the bomb that has been ticking steadily all week.