BELFAST - Street-level diplomacy to pacify Northern Ireland's feuding communities bodes well for a peaceful July 12, when Protestants mark a centuries-old military victory with parades that often spark riots, organisers hope.
Drew Nelson, grand secretary of the Orange Order Protestant fraternity formed in 1795, told Reuters reforms by the British government had given its members the wherewithal to go out into pro-British Unionist areas and persuade people to stay calm.
"This year there are still great tensions but the community response is being fully managed and there a lot of people out in those communities trying to keep a lid on things," he said. "I am reasonably confident that we are now over the worst."
Each year thousands of Orangemen march through Northern Irish streets to the booming accompaniment of drums and pipes wearing colourful regalia to celebrate the 1690 defeat in battle of Catholic King James II by the Protestant William of Orange.
Most marches pass off peacefully but a few through Catholic areas of the British province still spark riots despite a 1998 peace accord that largely ended 30 years of sectarian conflict.
Last year, Catholic protesters hurled petrol bombs and bricks at police after a July 12 march through their area. Two months later Protestants attacked police during weeks of rioting after a parade was re-routed away from a Catholic district.
Celebration or Triumphalism?
All sides still have work to do if they are to progress from "crisis management" to a permanent solution, he said.
"Sinn Fein are doing something to keep things calm but I also think they may have created a monster that is out of their control in some areas," Nelson said of the IRA's political ally and the province's main Catholic party which provides marshals at parades to keep Nationalist protesters in check.
Differences over the routing of a few contentious parades could be resolved "within the next five years", he added, if more was done to address a sense of alienation among Protestants who feel they have gained little from the peace process.
Recent moves by the British government, such as a 104,000 pound grant to the Orange Order and changes to the way festivals are funded, are already helping.
But if last year's violence is to become a thing of the past, Nelson believes legislative changes will be needed to the way parades are managed. He also wants compensation for arson attacks on Order meeting halls and an end to the "great insult" of requiring police officers to declare Orange membership.
The Order itself has work to do to reduce the tension caused by parades that most of the province's Catholics, who want a united Ireland, regard as an offensive display of triumphalism.
Nelson hopes to rebrand July 12 as a week-long festival culminating with the marches and has visited both London and Spain to see how other countries organise parades and how the Orange Order could promote the event as a tourist attraction.
"The marches are a celebration of our continued survival as a community in this island and a celebration of our freedom to express our culture in this way."