The 1,200 or so Orangemen marched from their Hall in Portadown to Drumcree Parish Church through the Catholic area and past the Catholic chapel. Had they agreed to return that way there would have been no problem. When they had marched down Garvaghy Road in the past it had been through the fields of a rose grower. Since the Catholics had been forced out of their homes throughout Portadown in the 70's it has become a nationalist ghetto.
The army turned out to back up the RUC at 3 a.m. with armoured cars roaring and searchlights blazing. Sleep was impossible. Was it a nightmare?. There was shouting, screaming and the sound of guns. The police, dressed in black armour and balaclavas under 'Darth Vader' style helmets, and wielding truncheons, fired plastic baton rounds.The armoured cars blocked the roads and the alleyways. People were not able to reach their homes if they were outside, nor leave their homes if they were indoors. Soldiers searched through the gardens, the chatter and hiss of their radios was heard outside the window. Some residents sat down on the main road.
Later, as the dawn was breaking, the police began removing them. Some were thrown through the police cordon. As they fell from two or three feet onto their backs they were kicked or batoned unless friends or family could drag them clear. One policeman shouted "Come on, you cowardly scum". Who were the 'men of violence' here? An army colonel arrived with an entourage of RSM, wireless operator, sergeant and bodyguards. He studied the situation. A senior police officer left the cordon and went towards him, closely followed by two residents. They were the local councillors, Brendan MacCionnaith and Bridget Rogers. They pleaded with the police chief to control the violence. He replied that the RUC were acting under orders and that they should take their complaints to the Chief Constable. "In the name of humanity, man. It will be too late when someone is dead." He strode away to join the colonel.
The soldiers regrouped at the side of the road and a line of police behind the Roman soldier style plastic shields began to run at the group of residents standing outside their houses, some became hemmed in by those behind. Police batons smashed down on the back of the heads of the slowest. One woman who went to bring her daughter out of the crowd was hit on the head. She put her hand up to protect herself and the baton hit her arm. The police were shouting though it was not possible to understand what they meant. The soldiers looked on impassively. Is this all in a days work for them? Seen it all before perhaps!
Later a group of residents led by a priest approached the cordon and requested to be allowed across the road to their chapel for the Sunday Mass. "Fuck off you Fenian scum" was heard. It was clear that in order to allow the Orange Order the right to march freely through this neighbourhood – on their return from their annual visit to Drumcree Parish Church, the Catholic community. who attend Mass in their thousands every Sunday, were to be denied the right to cross the road to their chapel. Then the miracle occurred. This abused, raped, oppressed community held an open air celebration of reconciliation at which prayers were offered for the very police and soldiers who only minutes before had been attacking them. The priests went to the soldiers and shook them by the hand. The triumph of the human spirit over state oppression. The soldiers looked bemused.
Some of the community were not present at the service. Some had thrown themselves in a demented fashion against the riot shields and received a good batoning or kicking for their trouble. Some were in the community centre having there wounds dressed. Some 15 had managed to get away to hospital. Only those in a comatose or life threatening state will risk going to hospital, where they will be at the mercy of the "authorities"'. The ambulance had to wait while the armoured cars were manoeuvred to allow a gap to be created in the barrier to let them through. Later, the Orange fascists had marched through to the banging of dustbin lids, shouts of derision and cries of "no justice, no cease fire!".
The army and police began their withdrawal. As the armoured cars and the police withdrew they were followed by youths, who burst through the stewards, throwing sticks, stones or whatever came to hand. This was met by fusillades of plastic baton rounds,, some of which hit their targets. A young eleven or twelve year old who wasn't looking took a hit in the shoulder. Another older youth was hit in the shins. There was a scramble for the rounds for sale to the reporters. Cars were hijacked and set on fire in the middle of the road. The police set up a road block at the edge of the nationalist neighbourhood.
For the nationalists, there is no post-stress-syndrome counselling, no canteen comforts or enhanced pay and pension or sympathetic media coverage. The RUC officer is on £35,000 a year. The RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan apologised for the gross "inconvenience" suffered by the residents of Garvaghy Road.
The following day there were reports in the British media of a riot. There were articles about the right to march to celebrate civil and religious liberty in The Daily Telegraph. "The IRA cannot dictate on marches or political progress" proclaimed The Times leader. The rest of the world viewed it rather differently. "A bad decision, says Irish government". "As bad as the days when De Klerk ordered the police into Soweto to attack the children." commented the South African Ambassador. "Marchers trample on hopes of peace," – Irish Independent. CNN cameras captured some of the RUC violence live on camera beamed straight out to satellite. A canny Australian cameraman who had all his film lost in a Police search last year had passed it on to a runner this time round. A Canadian Quaker International Observer who had been at the Peace Camp when it was overrun by the RUC was badly beaten. Kate Adie was not there to report, however. She got a hammering from the RUC last year and was no doubt glad to be covering another of the world's hot spots. The demoralised local leaders who had put so much faith in Mo Mowlam and the new government heard the people tell them they won't get their votes again, "the only people who will look out for us is the IRA."
Throughout the Six Counties nationalists vented their anger through rioting, hijacking and rallies, and the police were fired on in five separate incidents. Bombs were detonated and £5.6 million of damage caused when a suburban train.was destroyed. This gave the British media plenty to work on. There were a few calls for the marches to be rerouted or banned as they should have been in the first place. Too late the Orange Order was persuaded to cancel or re-route the four most contentious parades, probably because they were told that the army and the police simply don't have the resources to mount a Garvaghy Road type of operation at more than one place at a time. This gained them some respect and a breathing space for negotiation with Sinn Féin to begin.
The days of the 'loyalists', as the majority in the Six Counties are known, are numbered if the demographic changes continue. Some estimates suggest that the Nationalists will have a majority within 25 years. Protestant students tend to opt for Scottish and English Universities and do not return. More and more Catholics are graduating in Ireland and compete for the administrative and professional jobs. The character of the Orange Order has changed. The respectable bowler hat and umbrella image of the farmer and professional middle class is giving way to the rag-tag and bobtail bigot of those fearful of the loss of traditional benefit from being part of a dominant class.
There is no chance that the IRA will decommission their weapons while the overwhelmingly Protestant RUC are allowed to attack nationalist communities in this fashion, with the British Army looking on. There are almost 18,000 soldiers stationed in the Six Counties and many more armed RUC, many Orangemen themselves. What chance has the British Government in calling for human rights in Nigeria or Indonesia. or anywhere in the world for that matter, when it permits this sort of policing. The hatred and depth of unprovoked violence, exhibited by the police, should never be tolerated in any country with claims to be civilised. If there is ever to be peace in this sad dear land the British army must leave and the RUC must be disbanded.
Whatever is put in its place to guarantee law and order can only be better. The Unionists must not be permitted to sabotage inclusive negotiations which can bring this about. The sort of statelet they want to preserve is an anachronism found nowhere else in the UK and part of the shameful past of British imperialism which should be consigned to the dustbin of history as soon as decently possible.
This article is a shortened version of a report which, using contemporary notes and photographs, was given to a public meeting chaired by a County Councillor at Cardiff City and County Hall, Committee Room 4, on Monday 21 July, 1997, more than 8 months before the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April, 1998.
The author, Meic Peterson, BA, is a member of Côr Cochion Caerdydd.
©: Meic Peterson, 1999.
Editor's note :
On Monday 28 June 1999 the Parades Commission announced its decision to ban the Orange Order from parading along the Garvaghy Road on Sunday 4 July. In making its decision the Commission had taken into account the failure of the Orange Order to begin any meaningful dialogue with local residents until very recently. The recent approaches have been of such a kind, however, that if they had taken place earlier the decision might have been different. This belated but very welcome and positive change of approach on the part of the Portadown Lodge of the Orange Order, if sustained, must be seen as offering hope for a peaceful outcome in due course.
Published in The Green Dragon No 9, Winter 1999