March stand-off 'resolved in weeks'

The bitter six-year stand off over the annual Orange Order parade at Drumcree could be resolved within weeks, the local Orange lodge said as marchers backed away from a confrontation with security forces.

As the tension drained from Northern Ireland's most controversial parade, attention switched to an initiative aimed at brokering a final settlement.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief of staff Jonathan Powell, leading church and businessmen are all involved in efforts to break the impasse over the Orange Order's demand to walk down the staunchly nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown, Co Armagh.

The Order is prepared to end its ban on direct talks with representatives of the Catholic residents in return for being allowed to march the flashpoint route.

All future parades would then have to be agreed at a civil forum set up in the town to address both communities' concerns.

Nationalists have so far refused to sign up to the deal, claiming they are being asked to take too big a leap of faith.

But David Jones, spokesman for the Portadown Orangemen said: "If people are prepared to work on it and deal with this there's no reason why we can't have a parade next Sunday or the following Sunday.

"If this moves as it should, then we wouldn't have a big difficulty around Drumcree next year or future years. But it's all up to the residents to come back and give us their response."

For the sixth year running a steel barrier blocked the Orangemen from the Garvaghy Road as they emerged from a service at Drumcree parish church.

Heavy security was present with police and army prepared for any repeat of clashes that have erupted in previous years, often provoking violence across Northern Ireland. But it soon became clear there was no appetite for trouble among the 700 marchers or the few hundred supporters who joined them.

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