Protestant Marchers Take High Road in N. Ireland

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Have Northern Ireland’s firebombs really turned to tea and sandwiches? The Protestant Orange Order, blocked from their cherished Sunday march past Catholic homes by a fence of razor wire, a makeshift moat and a stubborn contingent of British troops, chose instead of violence a gambit that the region sees all too little of at this time of year. They backed down. "Keep it peaceful. I am warning you I will walk away from this if you don't keep it peaceful," the leader of Portadown's Orangemen, Harold Gracey, told his charges through a loudspeaker before ordering them away from the front line and up the hill for tea and sandwiches at the local minister's house. For the first time in memory, they listened. But for how long? Protestant leader David Trimble has set a condition for his restless constituency’s newfound docility: An IRA statement confirming disarmament plans. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is going ahead without it, and by Parliamentary decree Northern Ireland’s new Protestant-Catholic government must be formed on July 15. It is to be led by Trimble, who finds himself nudged further and further out on the proverbial limb by the IRA’s recalcitrance and Blair’s seeming tolerance for it. Protestant leaders do not want to be the ones to drag Ireland from peace back into war, but sharing a government with the Catholics when the IRA remains a fighting force is unthinkable to the Protestant rank-and-file. July 12, the emotional high point of marching season, may well be D-Day for all concerned. While their leaders score political points, Protestants are giving peace – and tea and sandwiches -- a chance. But they’re unlikely to have much appetite for crow.