Ritual Riots Unlikely to Break N. Ireland Peace

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It used to be called the "Marching Season," but over the past four years July in Northern Ireland has been the "Rioting Season." In an annual ritual as predictable as a Fourth of July cookout, loyalist youths have spent the past three nights venting their rage at policemen implementing a British government order barring Protestant militants from marching down the heavily Catholic Garvaghy Road in Portadown, a town 30 miles from Belfast. The authorities consider routing the march — part of the annual season of parades by the loyalist Orange Order celebrating the Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 — through the Catholic neighborhood an invitation to violence, and have once again built military-style defenses to keep the marchers out. The response has been three nights of rage across the territory as Protestant youths challenge the police, egged on by hard-liners opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process.

While the confrontation makes life uncomfortable for the Ulster Unionists and other mainstream loyalists, it's unlikely to derail the peace process on which they've staked their credibility. To be sure, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and his supporters have insisted on the right of the marchers to pass along the Garvaghy Road, but they've also deplored the violence of the protesters, who've targeted both police and the Catholic citizenry, forcing a number of the latter to evacuate their homes in different parts of Northern Ireland. The joint government involving Trimble and the IRA-aligned Sinn Fein is once again fully functional after having been suspended earlier this year in a showdown over IRA weapons. Just last week, the official international arms monitors appointed to oversee the process certified that the IRA have cached their weapons and put them "beyond use," and the riots may, in a perverse way, actually work in favor of Unionist peacemakers by alienating the extremists from the broader Protestant community.

To be sure, the majority of Northern Ireland's Protestants are unlikely to see much justification in attacking the Royal Ulster Constabulary (answerable to the same crown to which they pledge loyalty), even if they support, in principle, the right of the Orangemen to march through a Catholic neighborhood and use old enemy's defeat in a key battle 310 years ago as an opportunity to rub their faces in it again. Symbols, of course, are the grammar of nationalism, and the current upsurge in violence reflects a battle for leadership within the Unionist community between those who want to cling to sectarian traditions and those who want to look to the future. But even if the Unionist passions over a long-ago war are reminiscent of self-defeating Serb nationalism, Northern Ireland is not the Balkans — the two key states in the region, Britain and the Republic of Ireland, are unanimous in their desire to prod and bully the territory's warring factions into a lasting peace. It also a project that has the backing of most of the churchmen and common folk on both sides of the divide. Even if they have to hold their breath for most of July.