The Drumcree conflict is an ongoing dispute over parades in the town of Portadown, Northern Ireland. The dispute is between the Orange Order and local residents (represented by the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition). The Orange Order (a Protestant and unionist organisation) insists that it should be allowed to march through the town's mainly Catholic and nationalist area on its traditional route to-and-from Drumcree Church. The main parade is held on the Sunday before The Twelfth of July.
During the 1970s and 1980s there were numerous violent clashes as a result of the yearly parade. However, in 1995 the dispute drew the attention of the international media as it led to widespread protests and rioting throughout Northern Ireland. This pattern was repeated every July for the next four years. During this time the dispute led to the deaths of at least five civilians and prompted a massive police and army operation. Since 1998 the parade has been banned from most of the nationalist area, and the violence has subsided. However, regular moves to get the two sides into face-to-face talks have failed.
Portadown has long been a mainly-Protestant and unionist town. For example, at the height of the conflict in the 1990s, Protestants outnumbered Catholics four-to-one. The town's Catholics and nationalists have long suffered discrimination, especially in employment. Each summer the town centre is bedecked with unionist flags and symbols. This is to coincide with the "marching season", when numerous Protestant marches take place in the town. Throughout the twentieth century, the police force (Royal Ulster Constabulary or RUC) was also almost wholly Protestant and its members were free to join groups such as the Orange Order. This fuelled a strong feeling of isolation among the Catholics and nationalists. Peter Mulholland, a Portadown-born anthropologist, wrote that the Orange marches annually "re-invigorate" sectarianism and "re-assert" the supremacy of Protestants and unionists.
The Orange Order claims that it was founded after the so-called "Battle of the Diamond" in September 1795. This was a rural riot that took place near the village of Loughgall, a few miles from Drumcree. Portadown and the wider north Armagh area is thus seen as the "birthplace" of Orangeism, with many of the Order's oldest lodges being based there.
The Order also claims that its modern "church parade" to Drumcree is held to commemorate the 1916 "Battle of the Somme" during World War I. However, the march to Drumcree Church was originally and traditionally to celebrate the 1690 "Battle of the Boyne". The Orange Order's first ever marches were to celebrate this battle and they took place on 12 July 1796 in Portadown, Lurgan and Waringstown. In July 1795, the year the Orange Order formed, a Reverend Devine had held a "Boyne commemoration" sermon at Drumcree Church. In his History of Ireland Vol I (published in 1809), the historian Francis Plowden described the events that followed this sermon:
[Reverend Devine] so worked up the minds of his audience, that upon retiring from service, on the different roads leading to their respective homes, they gave full scope to the anti-papistical zeal, with which he had inspired them... falling upon every Catholic they met, beating and bruising them without provocation or distinction, breaking the doors and windows of their houses, and actually murdering two unoffending Catholics in a bog. This unprovoked atrocity of the Protestants revived and redoubled religious rancour. The flame spread and threatened a contest of extermination...
The first official Orange Order parade to-and-from Drumcree Church took place in July 1807. Each July since then, the Orangemen have paraded from the centre of town, along Obins Street, to Drumcree Church, and returned along Garvaghy Road. In the early 1800s, the area between the town and church was mostly fields. Protestant parades would regularly march through this area and past the Catholic Church. In 1835, Armagh magistrate William Hancock (a Protestant) wrote:
For some time past the peaceable inhabitants of the parish of Drumcree have been insulted and outraged by large bodies of Orangemen parading the highways, playing party tunes, firing shots and using the most opprobrious epithets they could invent. [The Orangemen have gone] a considerable distance out of their way to pass a Catholic chapel on their march to Drumcree church.
There was violence during the Drumcree parades in 1873, 1883, 1885, 1886, 1892, 1903, 1905, 1909 and 1917.
After the partition of Ireland in 1921, the Northern Ireland government's policy tended to favour Protestant and unionist parades. The Northern Ireland parliament was often described as being "A Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People". From 1922 to 1950, nearly 100 parades and meetings were banned under the Special Powers Act, of which nearly all were nationalist or republican. In Portadown, Protestant and unionist parades could usually march where they wanted; Catholic, nationalist and republican parades could not. Although violence died-down during this period, there were clashes at the 1931 and 1950 Drumcree parades. The Public Order Act 1951 exempted 'traditional' parades from having to ask police permission, but 'non-traditional' parades could be banned or re-routed without appeal. Again, the legislation tended to benefit Protestant parades.
In the 1950s and 60s, a number of housing estates were built on the fields along Garvaghy Road. In 1969, Northern Ireland was plunged into an ethnic/political conflict known as "The Troubles". Portadown, which had been religiously mixed, underwent major population shifts. The result was that these new estates became almost wholly Catholic and nationalist, while the rest of the town became almost wholly Protestant and unionist.
In the late 1960s a conflict known as "The Troubles" broke out in Northern Ireland. In 1972, the Provisional IRA (a republican paramilitary group) warned that they would 'take action' if the Orange Order marched along Obins Street on 12th July. The Ulster Defence Association (a loyalist paramilitary group) threatened to take counter-action if anything was done to stop the march. On Saturday 1 July, nationalists set up barricades at all roads leading into the nationalist area. On the morning of Sunday 9 July, the British Army cleared the barricades and used CS gas and rubber bullets on those protesting against the march. Once the area was secured, they then allowed Orangemen to parade along the road escorted by at least fifty UDA members.
 Photographs show the UDA members dressed in paramilitary uniforms and saluting the Orangemen as they marched through the Catholic/Nationalist Obins Street area on their way to Drumcree Church. Those and other photographs are available online at http://www.ehttp://orangecitadel.blogspot.com/ (See A 'Traditional Church Parade'). Although the parade itself passed peacefully, three men were killed in Portadown that day. Two were shot dead by an off-duty member of the RUC who seems also to have been a member of the UDA). The two men he shot were a Catholic publican(Jack McCabe) and a Protestant customer in his bar(William Cochrane); republicans shot dead a Protestant (Paul Beattie) in Churchill Park.
Later in the month, the Provisional IRA exploded a bomb on Woodhouse Street, and loyalists exploded a bomb at a Catholic church. In the Obins Street area there was also a gun battle involving the Provisional IRA, the UDA, and the security forces. The UDA’s involvement in the 1972 parades made a lasting impression on Portadown nationalists.
On 17 March (Saint Patrick's Day) the Saint Patrick's Accordion Band (a local nationalist band) was given permission to parade a two-mile 'circuit' of the nationalist area. However, a small part of the route (about 150 yards of Park Road) was lined with Protestant and unionist owned houses. Arnold Hatch, the town's mayor and Ulster Unionist Party councillor, demanded that the march be banned. When the RUC let it go ahead, Hatch and a small group of unionists staged a sit-down protest on Park Road. The RUC forced the band to turn around. That evening, the band again tried to march the route. Even though the protestors had gone, the RUC again stopped the band. Following this incident, Portadown nationalists boosted their campaign to get Orange parades banned from Obins Street.
Shortly before the Drumcree parade of 7 July, hundreds of nationalists staged a sit-down protest on Obins Street. However, police violently removed the protestors and allowed the parade to continue. At least one man was beaten unconscious and many were arrested. The whole length of Garvaghy Road was lined with British Army and police vehicles for the parade's return leg. On 12 July, eight Orange lodges met at Corcrain Orange Hall and tried to march through Obins Street to the town centre. When they were blocked by police, hundreds of loyalists gathered at both ends of the road and tried to push through. At least 52 police and 28 rioters were wounded, while about 50 Catholic-owned buildings were attacked. After this, the police erected a barrier at each end of Obins Street.
The Apprentice Boys, a Protestant fraternity similar to the Orange Order, had planned to march along Garvaghy Road on 1 April (Easter Monday). The day before, police decided to ban the march as it believed the UDA were to take part. At 1:00am on Monday, at least 3000 men gathered in the town centre, forced their way past a small group of police, and marched along Garvaghy Road. Among them was Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and of the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church. Residents claimed that some of the marchers were carrying guns. Some of the marchers attacked houses along the route and residents claimed that the RUC did little or nothing to stop this. There followed rioting between residents and the RUC. Some set up barricades for fear of further attacks. There was a feeling among locals that the RUC had "mutinied" and refused to enforce the ban. Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said that it was "more evidence of the untrustworthiness of the RUC". In the afternoon, another Apprentice Boys parade marched through the town centre. A group of loyalists attacked police, who were blocking access to the nationalist area. One rioter, Keith White, was shot by a plastic bullet and died in hospital on 14 April.
On 6 July the Drumcree parade took place. An estimated 4000 British Army and RUC were deployed in the town. Along the parade's route (Obins Street and Garvaghy Road), local residents were prevented from leaving their premises. Both nationalists and loyalists attacked police, wounding at least 27. The 12 July parade was blocked from Obins Street for the second year. Instead, police escorted the parade along Garvaghy Road without any bands. Although there was little violence on Garvaghy Road, loyalists later rioted with police and tried to smash through the barrier leading to Obins Street.
After 1986, the parades were permanently banned from Obins Street. In 1987 the Public Order Act was repealed by the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987, which removed the special status of 'traditional' parades.
Although nearly ten years passed without serious conflict over the Drumcree parades, both sides remained unhappy with the situation. Despite accepting the new route, many Orangemen felt that they should be able to parade wherever they wanted to. Meanwhile, residents of Garvaghy Road were very unhappy about what they called "triumphalist" Orange parades through their area. With the help of local politicians, they continually campaigned to have the route changed. To this end, they formed the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition (GRRC), with Breandán Mac Cionnaith (aka Brendan McKenna) as its spokesman. In 1994, the Provisional IRA and loyalist paramilitaries called a ceasefire.
On Sunday 9 July 1995, hundreds of nationalist residents staged a sit-down protest on Garvaghy Road to block the march. Although the parade was legal and the protest was not, police prevented the parade from taking the Garvaghy Road route. The Orangemen refused to take an alternate route, announcing that they would stay at Drumcree Church until they were allowed to continue. Negotiations were opened between the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition (GRRC), local politicians, the police and the Mediation Network, although the Orangemen refused to negotiate with the residents' group.
Meanwhile, ~10,000 Orangemen and their supporters were engaged in a standoff with ~1,000 police at Drumcree Church. During this standoff, missiles were continuously thrown at the police, who responded by firing 24 plastic bullets. In support of the Orangeman, loyalists blocked numerous roads across Northern Ireland, and sealed-off the port of Larne. On the evening of Monday 10 July, Ian Paisley (DUP leader) and David Trimble (UUP leader) held a rally at Drumcree Church. Afterwards they gathered a number of Orangemen and tried to push through the police barricade, but were taken away by officers.
By the morning of Tuesday 11 July, a compromise was reached. The Orangemen would be allowed to march along Garvaghy Road on condition that they did so silently, without accompanying bands. GRRC spokesman Breandán Mac Cionnaith says that the agreement was that the parade would go silently along the road, on condition that future parades would only occur with the consent of residents. This claim is not verified by other parties. The protesters were eventually persuaded to clear the road, and the march went ahead. However, as they reached the end of Garvaghy Road, Paisley and Trimble held their hands in the air in what appeared to be a gesture of triumph. Trimble claims that he only took Paisley's hand to prevent the DUP leader from taking all the media attention.
Both sides were deeply unhappy with the events of July 1995. Residents were angered that the parade had gone ahead and at what they saw as unionist triumphalism, while Orangemen and their supporters were angered that their parade had been held up by an illegal protest. Some Orangemen formed a group called Spirit of Drumcree (SoD) to defend their "right to march". At a SoD meeting in Belfast's Ulster Hall one of the platform speakers said, to applause, that
"Sectarian means you belong to a particular sect or organisation. I belong to the Orange Institution. Bigot means you look after the people you belong to. That's what I'm doing. I'm a sectarian bigot and proud of it.'
On Saturday 6 July 1996, the Chief Constable stated that the parade would be banned from marching along Garvaghy Road. Police checkpoints and barricades were set-up on all routes into the nationalist area.
On Sunday 7 July the parade gathered at Drumcree Church and was blocked by police barricades. At least 4,000 Orangemen and their supporters began another standoff. That afternoon, Reverend Martin Smyth (then Orange Grand Master) arrived at Drumcree and announced that there could be "no compromise". Again, loyalists began riots and blocked hundreds of roads across Northern Ireland.
On the night of 7 July, Catholic taxi-driver Michael McGoldrick was shot dead near Lurgan by the Mid Ulster Brigade of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). It is believed the killing was ordered by the brigade's leader, Billy Wright, from Portadown. Wright was frequently to be seen at Drumcree with Harold Gracey, head of the Portadown Orange Lodge. Members of the brigade smuggled homemade weaponry to Drumcree, apparently unhindered by the Orangemen. Allegedly, the brigade also had plans to drive petrol tankers into the Garvaghy area and ignite them. The following month, Wright's brigade was "stood down" for breaking the ceasefire. It adopted the name Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) and began a campaign of sectarian killing.
On Wednesday 10 July, the RUC reported that, over the previous four days, there had been:
At noon on Thursday 11 July, the Chief Constable reversed his decision and allowed the parade to march along Garvaghy Road. Residents of Garvaghy Road had not been consulted on this. Rioting erupted immediately as police violently removed protestors from Garvaghy Road, often after beating them. Rioting also erupted in nationalist areas of Lurgan, Armagh, Belfast and Derry. In Derry, twenty-two protestors were seriously injured and one, Dermot McShane, died after being run-over by a British Army armoured vehicle. Rioting continued throughout the week, during which time the RUC fired a total of 6002 plastic bullets, 5000 of which were directed at nationalists.
The Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), who had sent members to observe the situation, condemned this "completely indiscriminate" use of plastic bullets. Following the events, leaders of both Sinn Féin and the SDLP stated that nationalists had completely lost faith in the RUC as an impartial police force.
In late June 1997, Secretary of State Mo Mowlam had privately decided to let the parade proceed. This was later revealed in a leaked Northern Ireland Office document. However, in the days leading up to the parade, she insisted that no decision had been made.
On Thursday 3 July, the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) threatened to kill Catholic civilians if the march was not allowed to proceed. The following day, sixty families had to be evacuated from their homes on Garvaghy Road after a loyalist bomb threat. The Ulster Unionist Party also threatened to withdraw from the Northern Ireland peace process.
On Sunday 6 July at 3:30am, 1500 British soldiers and police sealed-off the nationalist area. This led to clashes with around 300 protestors. From this point onward, all residents were prevented from leaving their housing estates and accessing the main road.
The parade marched along Garaghy Road at noon that day. After it passed, the security forces began withdrawing from the area. A large-scale riot developed. About 40 plastic bullets were fired at rioters, and about 18 people were taken to hospital. In nearby Lurgan, nationalist protestors stopped a train and set it alight.
Early in 1998 the Public Processions Act was passed, establishing the Parades Commission. The Commission was now responsible for deciding what route marches should take. On 29 June 1998, the Parades Commission decided to ban the parade from Garvaghy Road.
On Friday 3 July about 1000 British soldiers and 1000 police were deployed in the area. They built large barricades across all roads leading into the nationalist area. In the fields between Drumcree Church and the Garvaghy area they also dug a trench (fourteen feet wide), which was then lined with rows of barbed wire. British soldiers also occupied Drumcree College, St John the Baptist Primary School, and some houses close to the barricades.
On Sunday 5 July the Orangemen arrived at Drumcree Church and stated that they would remain there until they were allowed to proceed. A group calling itself "Portadown Action Command" issued a statement which read:
As from midnight on Friday 10th July 1998, any driver of any vehicle supplying any goods of any kind to the Gavaghy Road will be summarily executed.
On Sunday 12 July at 4:30am, Jason (aged 8), Mark (aged 9) and Richard Quinn (aged 10) were burnt to death when their home was firebombed by loyalists. The boys' mother was a Catholic, and their home was in a mainly-Protestant part of Ballymoney. Following the murders, William Bingham (County Grand Chaplain of Armagh and member of the Orange Order negotiating team) said that "walking down the Garvaghy Road would be a hollow victory, because it would be in the shadow of three coffins of little boys who wouldn't even know what the Orange Order is about". He said that the Order had lost control of the situation and that "no road is worth a life". However he later apologised for implying that the Order was in any way responsible for the deaths.
The murders provoked widespread anger and calls for the Orange Order to end their protest at Drumcree. Although the number of Orangemen dropped greatly, the Portadown lodges voted unanimously to continue their standoff.
On Wednesday 15 July at 6:30am the RUC began a search operation in the fields at Drumcree. A number of weapons were uncovered in the search, including: a home-made machine gun, ammunition, explosive devices, and crossbows with home-made explosive arrows.
In the year after July 1998 the British Government began negotiations with the GRRC and the Orange Order —the latter still refusing to talk directly to the former— but without any agreement being reached. On 15 March 1999 the GRRC's legal advisor, Rosemary Nelson, was assassinated in Lurgan. The killing was claimed by the "Red Hand Defenders", who had detonated a bomb under her car. Although the rioting at Drumcree Church continued, the violence elsewhere died-down. Some senior Portadown Orangemen claim that they had been promised a parade on Garvaghy Road later that year if they could control things on the traditional parading dates. The following year the Parades Commission again banned the Orangemen from Garvaghy Road.
In 1999 the GRRC published a book detailing the history of Orange parades in the area. The book was called Garvaghy: A Community Under Siege. Much of the historical content of that book can now be read online at http://orangecitadel.blogspot.com/.
Since 2000 Drumcree has been relatively calm, with outside support for the Portadown lodges' campaign declining and the violence lessening greatly. Mac Cionnaith said that he believes the conflict is essentially over. The Orange Order continues to campaign for the right to march on Garvaghy Road, and in recent years has begun talks with a range of nationalists and republicans, including Cardinal Sean Brady and Gerry Adams.
Residents' Submission to Assembly Working Party on Parading Issues, Feb. 2010