Orange Order leaders are to double their weekly protest parades in Portadown despite warnings they are damaging fragile community relations.
District officers raised the stakes over the long-running Drumcree dispute as they met Secretary of State Owen Paterson yesterday and lodged a formal complaint against Parades Commission chairman Peter Osborne.
Portadown district master Daryll Hewitt said the now twice-weekly walks from Drumcree - on Sundays and Wednesdays - were a direct result of Mr Osborne urging the lodge to consider whether its once-a-week parade is helping to build better links with nationalist residents who remain opposed to the march.
Since a meeting with commission officials a few weeks back, Mr Osborne has said he will meet the Portadown leaders - but only after this year's Drumcree Sunday which this year falls on Sunday week, July 10.
"The chairman is totally out of order by refusing to meet until after the event. The situation is untenable and Mr Paterson told us he will raise the matter when he himself meets the commission next week," said Mr Hewitt. "We told Mr Paterson that a mediation process needed to start in Portadown as soon as possible. He was in listening mode but, after all, it was he who appointed the commission.
"The brethren were absolutely outraged that the chairman brought it upon himself to suggest we stop our Sunday marches. He opened his mouth without thinking. And though he is the one going on television urging the Orange Order to talk, it turns out he can't meet us in any useful timescale. It is all so one-sided."
It is now 14 years since the Portadown lodge last completed its annual walk back to the town centre via the mainly nationalist Garvaghy Road, and ever since, every Sunday lodge members have staged a short protest parade which is met by a token police presence, usually just one officer.
Since 1998, Orangemen have been banned from marching along the mainly nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown after their pre-Twelfth church parade - which dates back more than 200 years. In the three years prior, attempts to stop the parade sparked riots.