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Text: Dominic Bryan, T.G. Fraser and Seamus Dunn ... Page Design: Fionnuala McKenna

Political Rituals: Loyalist Parades in Portadown


Portadown, with a population of 30,000, is now part of the large new town development of Craigavon, along with Lurgan and the new estates of Brownlow. Craigavon was developed in the 1960s and 1970s to take up some of the expansion in Belfast, but as an area it failed to gain a definitive identity - locals still referring to Portadown and Lurgan by their names and describing Brownlow as Craigavon. The town has been relatively prosperous and is still perceived as being more successful than some of its neighbours. Of the three areas of Craigavon, Portadown suffers somewhat less from unemployment and has the lowest proportion of Roman Catholics, at around 30%. Attempts to have integrated housing estates in the area have largely failed, Brownlow becoming mainly Roman Catholic and suffering from unemployment and marginalisation (O'Dowd, 1993).

Two adjacent areas near Portadown town centre hold a large number of the Catholic population of the town. Obins Street, which is a short walk down Woodhouse Street past the town's railway station, is small and now rundown area but has been perceived as a Roman Catholic area since the last century, part of it being known as the Tunnel. Off the nearby Garvaghy Road are the newer and larger, predominantly Roman Catholic, Ballyoran and Churchill Park estates. On the Garvaghy Road, between Churchill Park and the town centre, sits the loyalist Park estate and around the marching season the red white and blue bunting directly marks the end of one area and the start of the next.

The origins of both Portadown and its friendly rival Lurgan are found in the plantation. Stories of the massacre of Protestants in Portadown in 1641 are part of local culture and are remembered and commemorated. The towns are also close to where the Orange Order was founded and Orangeism has been relatively strong in the area ever since. Some of the earliest Orange parades took place in the town, and many of the first lodges reside in the surrounding districts. There are presently three Orange Halls within close proximity of Portadown, the large Carlton Street Orange Hall in the town centre in which the majority of Portadown No. 1 district meets, the Corcrain Orange Hall which is situated on Charles Street right at the end of Obins Street and used by eight country lodges, and across the river, Edenderry Orange Hall.

There are three parades that have regularly marched through the Tunnel area. On the Sunday prior to the Twelfth, Orangemen from the town, usually accompanied by three bands, march down Obins Street on to the Dungannon Road to Drumcree church and return via the Garvaghy Road. On the Twelfth the eight country lodges march up Obins Street, with their bands, to join with Portadown No. 1 district, before heading off to the major County parade, and then on their return march back down to Corcrain Orange Hall. On 13 July, Royal Black Preceptories also march through Obins Street before and after the trip to the Sham fight in Scarva.

Sectarian confrontation accompanying parades has a long history in Portadown. Sometimes, it would reveal itself in the form of serious civil disturbances but invariably there was heightened tension.

'During the day some lively proceedings occurred. It was market day, and the Roman Catholic party flocked into town with their "goods" for sale. Of course, the usual quantity of "John Jamison" was inbibed, and with the flow of the spirits came the flow of the 'fists", and several "shindies" occurred of a harmless and amusing nature. It reminded the observer of Donnybrook fair, where one friend knocked down the other for "love", but Mr Smith D. I., and Head Constable Egan did not seem to enjoy the "sport" and at once put an end to the row'
The Twelfth of July 1884.[2]

The Tunnel area was the site of riots on 23 July and 5 November 1873, the second of these taking the form of a battle between policemen, who were blocking the entrance to the Tunnel, with Orangemen attempting to march through[3]. Serious riots took place in 1880 after a 'Green' arch had been erected for the Lady's Day celebrations of 15 August[4] and in 1885 the Tunnel was the scene of disturbances involving a Salvation Army band, accompanied by 'roughs' and playing 'party tunes', who had been ordered not to march in that direction.[5] There were further disturbances in 1886, and in 1892 riots continued for several days after the Twelfth, with the Belfast Newsletter complaining about the 'disgraceful conduct of the police'.

'At ten o'clock a cordon of infuriated policemen was drawn across the mouth of the Tunnel to charge a lot of innocent factory girls, who were marching down the street at the time. Th epolice are, at the time of writing, much excited.'[6]
Through much of this period the Tunnel area required heavy policing during the month of July.

Interestingly, a Billy Kennedy article in the Newsletter during the 1985 controversy neglects to mention these occasions although he does refer to an attack on Blackmen marching through the tunnel on 13 July 1951[7], and Roy Bradford talks of trouble during the 1920s.[8] Sinn Féin produced a document listing incidents in 1873, 1883, 1886, 1892, 1903, 1905v 19099 19175 1931 and 1950. They also referred to more recent events in 1969, 1972, and 1974 as well as a bomb planted to prevent the 1975 parade and riots in 1981[9]. Nevertheless, through much of the twentieth century parades appear to have become less contested.

Whilst it is difficult to say just how far Roman Catholics accepted the parades after the Second World War, it is reasonable to suggest that at the very least they remained relatively uncontested. There was certainly an incident in 1950 when a spectator in Obins Street attempted to strike a processionist, bandsmen broke ranks, and residents were reported as saying they would not let another parade pass through the area.[10] However, from reports throughout this period there appear to have been fewer obvious problems with, or direct opposition to, the parades. For a period between the Second World War and the mid 1960s, judging from stories told by Orangemen and Catholics, many Roman Catholics would spectate at Orange parades, and in country areas Catholic bands might share their musical instruments with the local Orange band. There are buoyant reports in The Portadown Times and interesting references to the Orange Order being a religious rather than a political institution. One might speculate that for this period a liberal post-war society is seen as just as threatening as a united Ireland.

A regular column, 'Bandroom Beat', in the local paper, written under the pseudonym of 'Bass Drum', provides some interesting comment. In describing the two bands, Thomas Street and St Marks, on the Drumcree church parade in 1961 , he points out that they only played hymns, 'which is as it should be'. As such, he deplores the recent introduction of 'top twenty' numbers or 'Orange tunes' into church parades in Belfast.[11] 'Bass Drum' also notes the large numbers of lodges without bands on the Twelfth, pointing out that in 1962 Lurgan district had only two bands, and Portadown only a few more, and consequently Orangemen often did not 'walk' in time, and in 1964 lambeg drums outnumbered the six bands marching with Portadown. The Portadown Times has pictures of events showing long lines of Orangemen with not a band in sight, and very few flags. It is also interesting that 'Bass Drum ' expresses surprise that a lodge from Portadown No. 1 district manages to engage a band from Lurgan and that it is of some concern that local bands want to parade in Belfast, apparently for better money. Such travelling of bands to other districts has become quite common. The make up of the bands is also worth noting. The area seemed to attract more bands for the 13th and in 1964 of the impressive 19 bands that marched with the Portadown Black: 11 were pipe, 3 accordion, 2 silver and 3 flute, and even the three flute were very different bands from the now familiar 'blood and thunder' flute bands.[12]

In a few areas, nevertheless, parade routes were an issue, most notably the marches at Longstone Hill in County Down, and in Dungiven from 1959 onwards (Bardon 1992:609). Perhaps more significantly, signs of liberalisation amongst the Unionist administration brought political attacks from more hard line politicians, particularly a young minister named Ian Paisley. Ctiticism of senior Unionist politicians inevitably also struck at the Orange Institution to which the Northern Ireland government was so closely linked. Indeed, in 1959, at the Twelfth platform at Finaghy, a number of Orangemen heckled Home Affairs Minister W.W.B. Topping, when he was trying to defend a decision to ban a parade. However, it was in the maelstrom that engulfed Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, often known as 'the troubles', that parades were almost inevitably to become the site of confrontation. As early as 1966 it became clear that Unionism was divided. Much of the press coverage in July of that year reflected this new situation. The Belfast Telegraph carried the Twelfth headline 'EXTREMISM CONDEMNED' 'TRUST IN CAPTAIN O'NEILL'.

'Not long ago speeches on the Twelfth of July were the dullest part of proceedings. But not today. What the Orange platforms have witnessed is a critical round in a struggle not only for control of the Order but for possession of Northern Irelands soul. Is this statement to strong? We do not think so. Orangeism is again in a key position. It is the first to have to make the choice between responsible government through the present Unionist leadership or aform of dictatorship through a religious war led by a latter-day "Mad Mullah" ' [13].

The Portadown Times carried the headline 'BE CALM' and talked in terms of a 'serious Twelfth' at the Armagh County parade. The reason for this change appears to be the meeting of Prime Minister O'Neill with the Irish Taoiseach, and during resolutions from the platform supporting O'Neill there was a significant number of hecklers, some wearing Orange regalia.[14] There was also some condemnation of the recent actions of the 'so called UVF'.[15] In 1967 The Portadown Times pled for tolerance but again there were jeers for O'Neill, and even a report of detectives mingling with the crowd.[16] The following year, the resolutions from the platform at Bessbrook were concerned with threats to the constitution.[17] The growth of the civil rights movement, with its tactics of mass demonstration, brought into question the hegemonic control of the Parliament at Stormont, and, by 1969, public confrontation and pogroms involving the political communities inevitably led to a heightened sense of territoriality in the cities, and many of the towns, of Northern Ireland.

The divisions that the new situation had fostered within unionism may have been indicated in 1969 by the fact that no MPs spoke at the Twelfth for the first time in living memory and there was a scathing attack on their political representatives from the platform in Markethill. Parades in Lurgan, Dungiven, Londonderry, and Belfast ended in disturbances. Although denied by the police, there was a rumour that a bottle had been thrown in Woodhouse Street.[18] Calls for dignity were made by senior Orangemen prior to the 1970 Twelfth (held on the 13th), although they refused a request by the British government to call off parades. Again there was heckling of speakers at the County demonstration at Newtownhamilton and a major argument and scuffle took place near the platform. There was also an interesting attack on the press and TV coverage of the Twelfth.[19] In fact Stormont imposed a ban on parades in the second half of the year, which the Apprentice Boys announced they would defy.

Rumours may or may not be true, but they are invariably indicators of people's uncertainty. During the previous year numerous stories circulating on the day had almost sparked trouble and, as a consequence, in 1971 the RUC actually set up a mobile office in the middle of the Twelfth field to dispel 'rumours'.[20] However, the event itself still showed signs of discord, with the County Grand Master warning at least 100 hecklers that they might be disciplined. Westminster MP Jack Maginnis called for them to 'take off their sashes and resign'.[21]

By 1972, the communal situation was so bad that there were serious doubts about whether the Drumcree Church parade could go ahead. In late June the UDA had erected barriers in estates close to Portadown and tension in the Obins Street area was very high, there having been 'mini-riots' in recent months. Eventually bulldozers cleared away barriers that had been put up in Obins Street on the Sunday morning and CS gas was used to disperse rioters. When the disturbances had subsided an apparently larger contingent of Orangemen started their parade. However, they were led by a group of at least 50 UDA men who proceeded to stand on either side of the Road up until the tunnel and who promised police they would go on through if one shot were fired. It has been suggested that this intervention was not at the bidding of Orangemen, and that the UDA, a legal organisation in the 1970s. appeared from the other end of town.[22] However, not surprisingly this show of strength and the apparent threat of 3,000 available UDA men led to both the Official and Provisional wings of the IRA threatening to stop Twelfth parades going down Obins Street, warning the UDA that they would not be allowed to repeat such actions. Whilst the parades on the Twelfth and Thirteenth passed peacefully, there were three men shot dead in Portadown on the morning of the Twelfth and later that month there was a bomb in Woodhouse Street (Provisional IRA), a bomb in a local Catholic church (Loyalist paramilitary), and a gun battle in the Obins Street area involving, it would seem, members of the IRA, UDA and subsequently members of the security forces to 'clear out IRA nests'.[23]

Elements of the Twelfth parade significantly altered during this period. Judging by the discussions in newspapers of the new bands taking part in the parades of 1973, 1974, and 1975, as well as a reduction, in the number of lambeg drums, the musical participation in the parades was changing. Many of these early 'blood and thunder' bands wore the simplest of uniforms, grey trousers, white shirt and tie and a v-necked jumper, although the Portadown True Blues appear to have a simple jacket as well. There were also more bands to walk with the district of Portadown, quite in contrast to the 1950s and early 1960s.[24]

In 1973 during the field demonstration at loughgall there was again heckling, with attacks upon Brian Faulkner, and both speeches at the parades and editorials in the local paper demanded that Orangeism attempt to work towards Unionist unity. In 1974 the Drumcree Church parade saw a silent protest from young people on the Garvaghy Road as they turned their backs on the parade.[25] Also that year, police stopped any spectators from following the Orangemen down into Obins Street and the following year the parade was held up by two bombs planted in Obins Street. The Craigavon Times complained that 'the unfortunate fact is that the Drumcree service, since 1972, has been made one of the political "footballs" used by various elements for point scoring'.[26] In 1976 hundred of troops had to police the parade and a bottle was thrown at the march.[27]

At the Scarva Sham fight of 1976 there appears to have been major discord as a large number of Blackmen heckled Martin Smyth, apparently for his involvement in talks with the SDLP. Shouts of 'Lundy' and 'Paisley is our man' issued forth as officials went and took note of the lodge numbers on the collarettes of those taking part. It would seem that the long term result of this occasion was the forming of a lodge in Portadown affiliated to the Independent Orange Order, with their first parade being in 1979.

From 1977 until 1980, a certain amount of confidence returned to the July proceedings. The parades appear to be less tense with the local newspaper producing headlines such as 'Orange Order is Sticking to Task' (1977), 'Twelfth Back to Normal as Crowds Return', 'colour and gaiety returns after years of strife' (1978) and 'Glorious Twelfth Smashes all Records' (1979), reflecting some optimism. In at least two of the years (1977 and 1978) resolutions attacked talk of a possible independent Ulster. Pictures of the Portadown True Blues and the Portadown Defenders, containing 50 and 40 members respectively, are evidence of the popularity of such bands, whilst the Portadown Old Boys Silver Band disappeared (1979). In 1980 a record 18 bands marched with the Portadown district on the Twelfth, four bands having marched to Drumcree Church the previous Sunday. Not that parades were without controversy during this period; in 1979 a fire was lit in Obins Street prior to the Church parade, and there was a row over a Tricolour in Churchill Park off the Garvaghy Road.[28]

With the hunger strike taking centre stage in 1981, there was again increased tension. Demonstrators appeared in Obins Street on the Twelfth, and on the Thirteenth protesters waved Black flags and held 'Wanted for Murder' posters as the Royal Black Institution and their bands marched through. In response loyalists draped a Union Jack over the bridge.[29] The Black parade the following year was also a tense occasion with stones being thrown at them in Obins Street and community leaders having to work hard to calm the situation. Interestingly, that year five bands had taken part in the Drumcree Church parades including the local popular blood and thunder bands the Portadown Defenders and the Portadown True Blues, along with a silver band and two accordion bands.[30]

Disquiet over parading in general was growing and Chief Constable John Hermon was later to argue that there was an increased 'concern over the emergence of an irresponsible element in respect of a small number of parades...'[31] and that the RUC had had problems in 1984 with parades in Cookstown, Castlewellan, Downpatrick, Ballynahinch and Portadown. A Force Order issued within the RUC in 1984 referred to 'an upsurge in the number of bands whose members are predisposed to overt and unruly displays of sectarian bitterness'.[32]

In 1983 and 1984 the 'blood and thunder' bands do not appear to have taken part in the Drumcree Church parade but clearly there was some concern, within the security forces, over the situation. General tension on the Garvaghy Road was such that in 1983 there was discussion of a peace line between Woodside and Churchill Park.[33]


[1] Chief Constable's Annual Report 1992 p.36.
[2] BNL 1517/1884
[3] NL 6/11/1873, PT 28/6/85.
[4] BNL 15/8/1880, 16/8/1880
[5] BNL 21/7/1885
[6] BNL 16/7/1892
[7] Which should, probably be 1950, NL 5/7/85.
[8] NL 8/7/85.
[9] PT 22/6/85.
[10] NW 14/7/50.
[11] PT 21/7/61.
[12] PT 20/7/629 24/7/64
[13] BTel 12/7/66
[14] As there also appears to have been at the Co. Down parade in Ballynahinch - PT 15/7/66.
[15] PT 15/7/66.
[16] PT 14/7/67.
[17] PT 19/7/68.
[18] PT 18/7/69
[19] PT 10/7/70, 17/7/70.
[20] PT 9/7/7 1.
[21] PT 16/7/71. It is interesting that although the local paper reports these incidents it fails to reproduce any pictures but sticks to the bland montages of happy faces.
[22] Interview.
[23] PT 14/7/72, 21/7/72, 28/7/72.
[24] PT 18/7/73, 10/7/74, 16/7/75.
[25] PT 10/7/74.
[26] CT 2/7/75, 9/7/75.
[27] CT 7/7/76.
[28] DT /7/77, PN 14/7/78, 21/7/78, 6/7/79, 20/7/79, 11/7/80, 18/7/80.
[29] PN 17/7/81.
[30] PN 9/7/82, 16/7/82.
[31] BTEL 1/5/86
[32] BTEL 4? 10? 86
[33] PT 1/7/83, 15/7/83, 11/7/84.

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