Drumcree Faith and Justice Group and monitoring Orange parades on the Garvaghy Road, Portadown, late 1980s+
by Rob Fairmichael
Introduction – The general situation
In “Track III Actions – Transforming protracted political conflicts from the bottom-up” (Ed. Helena Desivilya Syna and Geoffrey Corry, pub. De Gruyter, 2023) Brendan McAllister gives a detailed account of the Drumcree parading dispute in Portadown from 1995 and his involvement with attempts at mediation then and in ensuing years. Brendan had become director of what is now Mediation Northern Ireland in 1992; sadly he died in December 2022. The publication of his article challenged me to write something about “Drumcree before ‘Drumcree’”, i.e. before the name of that locality became common on news media around the world. This is both to provide some context and because there is a story, or stories, well worth telling.
In 1995 the Drumcree situation of an Orange parade going through a Catholic area ‘blew up’ and in Rev Ian Paisley’s words it became not just a battle for Drumcree but a battle for Ulster. Pitched battles were fought in fields close to Drumcree church and loyalists from around Northern Ireland joined in, one way or another, seeing the denial of ‘their’ perceived right to march down the Garvaghy road as a direct attack on their culture. Once there is that much identification with a struggle, and engagement with it, there is little chance of a mediative settlement (as Brendan McAllister’s account shows). And it was a costly ‘blow up’ in terms of tension, violence, and the loss of life associated with it.
Some unionists and loyalists saw the emergence of parade disputes as a major issue around 1995 (not just Portadown but the Lower Ormeau in Belfast and Dunloy, Co Antrim, for example) as manufactured mischief by republicans and Catholics looking for issues to hit Protestants with after the ceasefires of 1994. But political parades have always been problematic in the north of Ireland both before and after partition. The emergence of parades issues at this time was simply that previously Catholics had felt relatively powerless to raise the issues concerned, particularly pre-ceasefires.
The loyalist perception of the ‘right’ to march where desired comes from a previous era when the state itself was unionist-loyalist in orientation, in the period 1921-1972, and Orangeism would have been fully facilitated by the state (though it would also have drawn on unionism before the foundation of Northern Ireland). In practice the loyal/marching orders mainly restricted marches to Protestant and mixed areas so the vast majority of marches were uncontroversial.
Orangeism is a form of cultural and political expression albeit made publicly in the form of military-style parading and effectively the marking of territory. But it is also, within part of the Protestant community – and it is exclusive in this way – a bonding exercise and the Twelfth (12th July) is, for those involved, a great celebration and gala occasion. For supporters it is also a family fun day, or morning, watching the parades, and for young bandsmen, and some bandswomen, an opportunity to impress their friends, female and male. The Twelfth is quite a spectacle along with the bonfires the night before.
However the more general issue regarding parades in contested areas is one of clashing human rights; the Orange or loyalist right to express political views and culture versus the Catholic or nationalist right not to be intimidated. Some would see Orangeism and Orange parades as religious and if so there would be issues of religious freedom involved too but I consider the religious dimension of Orangeism to be very minor compared to it being culturally Protestant. Incidentally, the service at Drumcree Church the Sunday before the Twelfth, this precedes the parade or attempted parade down the Garvaghy Road, is a very distinctively Orange service (processing, hymns, sermon) and not remotely a typical Church of Ireland Sunday service.
Regarding the right not to be intimidated I include not just physical intimidation, or the threat of it, but also the possibility of people being made to feel as unconsulted second class citizens with no control over their own area. There are many different forms of powerlessness and that is one of them.
While the state developed a new strategy in 1998, giving over decisions on parades to a Parades Commission where previously it was the police, the answer to clashing rights is of course dialogue. The ‘Derry model’ shows one way this can be done with considerable success. It was the willingness of the Apprentice Boys of Derry to talk to local people in that city – even if there were caveats – which unlocked the impasse there and which enabled relatively trouble free parades. The ‘Derry model’ is covered by Michael Doherty in the above mentioned book with notable features being a) the involvement of the business community b) the willingness of the Apprentice Boys of Derry (loyalist parading organisation) to talk to both the Parades Commission and local residents at least in a forum context, and c) this took place in a majority nationalist area. The business community in Portadown did not have the same impetus to be involved as that in Derry where business was badly affected by parades trouble.
Orangemen in Portadown were unwilling to talk directly to Garvaghy Road local residents because of the involvement of republicans or former combatants there, and there would also be an element that they considered they should not be obliged to do so. They felt they had the right to parade while their being denied marching down the Garvaghy Road was also attacked by some, falsely, as a denial of their right to worship at Drumcree Church of Ireland.
1995 was not the beginning of the ‘Drumcree dispute’ or indeed of parading controversy in Portadown – this went back to the 19th century. But in the 1970s and earlier 1980s the flashpoint in Portadown had been the route of the parade through Obins Street closer to the centre of town – which is another story in itself and the site of considerable violence; this route was then banned in the mid-1980s. It would seem that at this stage the police might have had an opportunity to refuse future parades down the Garvaghy Road, but they did not take that option, and the conflict continued and subsequently exploded in a way which eclipsed even the violent riots at Obins Street.
The complete story of parading in Portadown is a long, complicated and frequently violent one which there is no time or space to explore here; information is available on the CAIN website and elsewhere. Parades in general had been so troublesome or trouble-producing in the 19th century that the British government had banned them for two periods (1832-1845 and 1850-1872); trouble associated with parades was nothing new.
In this piece I wanted to share some of my limited knowledge of the period immediately before Drumcree became ‘Drumcree’. While I have tried to check the facts of or from my involvement, and ‘run it past’ someone involved, I have not done any extensive research in writing this. I was involved in support for the Drumcree Faith and Justice group and did some nonviolence training with them and attended various meetings.
Drumcree and DFJ
The parade down the Garvaghy Road was experienced by most Catholics in the area as treating them as second class citizens and as something imposed on them. In 1986 the local Drumcree Faith and Justice group (DFJ) on the Garvaghy Road, in the Catholic area, organised a ‘tea party’ during the parade coming through the area as they paraded home from Drumcree Church of Ireland. https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/46711654212/in/photolist-2eaKrou-2m1iLas-2m1sRev
The ‘tea party’ was a symbol of nonviolent resistance to the parade. But it was also proposing an alternative to IRA violence by offering resistance in a way that challenged, but also respected, opponents. This was perhaps the more important element in the demonstration, in that locals saw it as a challenge to IRA ideology.
The DFJ also stressed that there were about 40 Orange parades in Portadown in the course of a year, so the Order could not argue that its identity was not respected. Further, they said since nationalists were a minority greater weight needed to be given to their identity when there were disputes.
It should be stated that while the DFJ might have been most associated with resistance to the Orange parade coming through, they were a group committed to nonviolence and involved in other peace, cross-community and community development work. They even directly challenged republican violence and control, in one case when republicans were expelling some local men, by surveying local residents on the issue, showing there was tiny support for such action – undertaking this was bravery of the first magnitude. Here is what they wrote about it themselves:
“In May 1990 the group confronted the North Armagh Brigade of the IRA who expelled three local men from Northern Ireland, apparently on the grounds of “antisocial” behaviour. Members of the Group did a door to door survey in Churchill Park of how local residents responded to this threat. Out of 162 houses approached, 4 supported the IRA position, 8 abstained, 122 condemned the IRA action, and the rest were not at home. The Group subsequently publicised the results of the survey in the press and on radio and got wide coverage. This was a difficult action for the Group to take, but they were determined not to give in to this kind of oppression from the IRA”. https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/31758301747/in/album-72157717096321767/
They also put an advertisement in the ‘Portadown Times’ following a large IRA bomb in the town in 1993. This asked “As Catholic Citizens of Portadown we ask: Why Wreck Our Town?”. Again, this was a direct challenge to the IRA and its violence.
Many unionists and Orangemen felt, indeed feel, that they have the right to walk the “Queen’s Highway”, that anywhere in Northern Ireland should be open to them. The phrase is not so much used now and in any case it would currently be the “King’s Highway”. However most Orange parades only take place in Protestant, neutral or mixed areas where they are generally welcomed or tolerated. While those of an Orange or loyalist persuasion might feel this right to march is principally for loyal citizens, and not for Catholics, the DFJ were involved in an action which showed that in Northern Ireland there is no such thing as a neutral “Queen’s Highway”.
Marking the 5th anniversary of the founding of DFJ, in 1989 they tested the waters for parading by applying for permission to parade up to the centre of town and back again. Loyalist paramilitaries issued a threat. The police (who still made decisions on parades at this stage, before the Parades Commission) banned the parade leaving the Catholic area. QED there was indeed no such thing as a neutral “Queen’s Highway”, a point which ironically the loyalist paramilitaries had helped to make by issuing the threat. https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/53283767509/in/dateposted/
And at that time such threats were very real. The DFJ was associated with a small Jesuit community in a local house. Some loyalists and Protestants had an idea of the Jesuits which was probably mistaken in the 17th century let alone the late 20th. A story was shared during a local meeting with renowned nonviolent activists Jean and Hildegard Goss-Mayr in 1998; a reformed loyalist paramilitary told that, subsequent to the Jesuit community house being established, he was part of a team sent to kill them – he said the Jesuits were spared because the paramilitaries could not find the house…..
After a couple of years of the tea party as a symbol of resistance, the DFJ subsequently took to sit down protests about the parade coming through. See photos from 1989 (and a short general album about DFJ) at https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/albums/72157717096321767/with/50659770223/
DFJ did communicate directly with police in a friendly but direct fashion during the events of Drumcree Sunday. On one occasion they succeeded in getting the police to withdraw police dogs out of sight of residents for fear that this would antagonise them if people thought that police were intending to use them.
There was one instance where for DFJ paying the piper was not necessarily calling the tune – literally. One year (1989) DFJ had a local band playing on a flatbed trailer as an attempt to provide a positive atmosphere on the Garvaghy Road as the parade came through. However as the parade approached, and totally contrary to why they were engaged, the band struck up “A nation once again”! That’s what I remember though another person present recorded it as “We shall overcome”.
It is worth telling about a detail of a meeting I attended, possibly in 1990, organised by DFJ but including some other people. An issue under discussion was the fact that the police were turning back young Catholic men from going up the centre of the town; while the police were responding to the real risk of sectarian trouble and fighting between Protestant and Catholic young men, their response was in itself sectarian (turning back Catholics and presumably only Catholics) and contrary to their human rights (freedom of movement).
There was a prominent local Catholic citizen present at this meeting, from outside the immediate area and not involved with DFJ. He asked why these young men were going up the centre of the town anyway as “it isn’t ours” (i.e. it was mainly Protestant). I was gobsmacked. He wasn’t from the area that young people were being denied freedom of movement but he seemed to be accepting an apartheid-type situation not just for Portadown but, extrapolating, for the whole of Northern Ireland. This is just one, perhaps surprising, detail at the time of acceptance of sectarianism in what was, and is, a very divided town.
From 1989 until 1993 INNATE was involved in providing monitors during the Drumcree parade. While INNATE was invited to do so by DFJ, and in that sense supportive of them, INNATE was quite clear that it was there to observe everyone and as far as possible to feed back to the different parties what had happened and what could have been done differently – including to DFJ. INNATE developed its own model of monitoring/observing and did some work in encouraging others to use this methodology in conflict situations (the INNATE report is available in Dawn Train No.11, 1992, available at https://innatenonviolence.org/dawntrain/index.shtml).
INNATE was the first body to use monitoring in parades and potential conflict situations in Northern Ireland as the Troubles were winding down (there had been considerable monitoring type activity early in the Troubles – see e.g. article by John Watson, Dawn Train No.10, also at https://innatenonviolence.org/dawntrain/index.shtml). It was presumably nothing to do with INNATE but by the mid-1990s there could be up to half a dozen different monitoring groups at a contentious parade.
Brendan McAllister himself was an INNATE monitor on the Garvaghy Road in 1991 and 1992 – he is the guy sitting in the middle wearing a tie in a photo at https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/3281825083/in/album-72157607571533994/. His first time monitoring with INNATE in Portadown was his first time monitoring – something which he developed extensively, with a different model to INNATE, in his mediation role – you can see some photos including Brendan himself in a photo album on monitoring and accompaniment at https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/albums/72157629555375796. He played a significant role in preventing escalation to violence that first day he monitored in Portadown. A policeman in a police line across a road was engaged in verbal interaction with a citizen in front of it; the situation was escalating and the likely outcome would have been the man being arrested and quite possibly subsequent violence.
However a colleague of the policeman engaged in the interaction was seen talking to him, it was presumed informing him that there was at least one independent monitor (Brendan McAllister, identifiable in that role by an armband) nearby looking at the situation; the policeman concerned calmed down, and escalation was avoided. This account is based on the report back by Brendan at the INNATE debrief immediately after the parade. The RUC was not renowned for discipline in this sort of situation at the time and it seems having a visible monitor or observer present promoted best behaviour and prevented significant deterioration and the risk of violence.
INNATE observers/monitors came from a variety of backgrounds including peace activists, Protestant and Catholic, some people who had a human rights involvement, and some international volunteers. One of the last managed the difficult task of writing an account of the DFJ tea party, sit down, the Orange parade and police activity in a humorous manner while also making serious points. https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/53283768339/in/dateposted/ Another monitor, a Quaker (of which there were several involved as INNATE monitors), was originally from the Portadown area and recognised by some loyalists; he was threatened in no uncertain terms – i.e. a very deliberate threat to his physical wellbeing – not to come back and monitor again. He was viewed by these people as a turncoat or traitor in the Northern Ireland sectarian response that if you are seen as doing something for ‘them’ you are doing it against ‘us’.
In a subsequent year to when INNATE provided monitors, I presume 1994, I was engaged to assist local stewards on the Garvaghy Road in preparing for being present for the Orange parade through the area but that is another (long) story. However the relevant point is that a significant number of local residents, not just DFJ people, as part of the residents’ coalition were trying to prevent violence ensuing on their side of the metaphorical fence because of the Orange parade. A much smaller number of military minded republicans would probably have been quite happy if trouble ensued.
For a brief comparison between mediation, stewarding and monitoring there is a leaflet produced from an INCORE project in 1999; see https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/20334307318/in/album-72157629555375796/ and entry beside it. The contact information in this is out of date but it is interesting to compare the different approaches and the overlaps between them. The approach developed by Mediation Northern Ireland with Brendan McAllister and others, mentioned above, was to monitor and feed back information up a chain which could be used for mediation, in current time or subsequently. The cross-interface phone networks set up in Belfast when mobile phones were still a novelty was another approach; this enabled community workers or activists ‘on the other side’ to be advised about what was happening across the divide, or indeed coming from their side, so they could take appropriate action immediately to help defuse situations.
In 1991 as part of its follow up to monitoring the Drumcree Sunday parade, INNATE decided to make representations to the Belfast News Letter regarding their report on the parade; this labelled all those present looking on at the parade from the Catholic Garvaghy Road as republican, i.e. Sinn Féin/IRA supporters (showing a prejudiced view and/or ignorance about the area). This would not only have been manifestly untrue but also dangerous since labelling people in this way, particularly pre-ceasefire, was making them targets.
The letter sent to the News Letter was clearly headed and underlined so as to be unmissable, before the text of the letter, “This letter is not intended for publication.” They published it. They refused to apologise until a complaint went to the Press Council. INNATE’s letter included criticism of the police on the day in question which INNATE would not have been made publicly (comments were made directly and privately to the RUC on their performance).
The News Letter said the letter was typed onto their computer system by an editorial assistant and simply marked ‘Letters’ (without the ‘not for publication’ part). The only compensation they offered was that INNATE could offer a suggestion for the topic of an editorial which they would write! A reasonable gesture might have been a free advertisement. However there was one humorous outcome; in response to the mistakenly published letter which had been signed by myself (and it probably was a genuine mistake although very sloppy journalism or office management), another letter was published criticising “Mr Fairmichael and his INANE organisation….”!
In this period there was great variation from year to year in the feeling associated with the Drumcree parade depending on both local events (local killings and who did them as well as other factors) and the broader political situation. However one feature remained constant; once the parade was over there was relief (this was pre-1995) and no compulsion to deal with the issues, aside from residents, and when the summer loomed again the next year it was felt to be ‘too late’. Thus it was always ‘the wrong time’ for an initiative to solve the issue.
But the moral of this story is that a ‘little local issue’ – expressed in inverted commas because it was actually a big deal locally – when left to fester could blow up to be “a battle for Ulster”. The situation remains unresolved today though active and general unionist backing for the Orange cause at Drumcree waned after the killing of three young Catholic children in the one family in Ballymoney, in an attack seen as associated with it, in 1998.
Before 1995, before it did become ‘Drumcree’, a concerted initiative by the police and/or a respected civil society group outside the area might have had some chance of success in reaching at least an implicit agreement – if the Orange Order could have been persuaded it was in their interests to engage (which it would have been, and still is, to negotiate ‘safe passage’ down the Garvaghy Road). They would need to have been offered a way to talk or negotiate, directly or indirectly, which they could accept, like the Apprentice Boys in Derry subsequently. But it does also need stated that focused mediation work was only beginning in Northern Ireland at this stage. When Brendan McAllister was able to be involved it was already too late despite determined effort, after it became an international issue and a shibboleth in Northern Ireland.
In conclusion about the Drumcree parade at the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s, I joke that our work was so successful that the word ‘Drumcree’ was never heard again…. The lack of success at this time, and the subsequent explosion in the situation, was certainly not due to the Drumcree Faith and Justice Group who were an impressive and brave group of local people seeking to make a positive contribution to their own area and to Portadown as a whole on a broad range of issues. Unfortunately the Drumcree parading situation joined the long list of unresolved matters in Northern Ireland though inclusive talking of some kind could still bring about a ‘result’ – a win-win one – for everyone.