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'Questions following U-Turn' - Irish News editorial, 13 July 1996
Text: Irish News Editor ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
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Questions following U-turn
The following is the text of the editorial which appeared in
the Irish News newspaper on 13 July 1996.
CHIEF Constable Sir Hugh Annesley has said that the "threat
to life" was his reason for allowing Orangemen to march down
the Garvaghy Road.
He said the RUC could not hold out against thousands of Orangemen
and that the situation had changed since he made his original
decision to halt the parade.
He also said that he could not guarantee the integrity of the
nationalist areas if the Orange mob had broken through the defensive
lines around the church.
If this is true it means that he saw a clear threat of violence
on the part of the Orangemen to the people of the Garvaghy Road
and he gave in to it.
This exposes the latent violence inherent in the Orange desire
to march through nationalist areas.
What all this means is that the chief constable is saying his
force could not uphold the rule of law, so in fact they are no
longer in control and the Orange Order has demonstrated that it
is more powerful than the police.
The rumoured threat of a slurry tanker filled with petrol forcing
police to withdraw is laughable.
Does this mean the police will now withdraw if the IRA threatens
to shoot them?
In fact the police did not take any of the options of determined
action open to them.
The crowd at Drumcree never at any time reached the proportions
of the attendance at a good-sized football match, so why were
the police unable to maintain order?
The same was true of many of the riot situations that developed
across the north.
At Drumcree, the protesters were concentrated in a fairly enclosed
area and should have been easily contained - the police knew where
they wanted to go and there was only one direction to get there,
so why could they not be held back?
They also did not try to isolate Drumcree and prevent the hordes
of loyalists from across the north joining the crowd assembled
there - illegally - every night.
Every evening carloads and buses full of 'supporters' would descend
on the town centre and the roads behind the church until traffic
was at a standstill.
This meant that every night police were faced with a growing mob
of increasingly hostile loyalists, and that every night their
defences were threatened.
The fact that soldiers had placed a barbed wire barrier at Drumcree
that ran almost to the Garvaghy Road before the parade on Sunday
showed that police expected trouble.
They should have made sure those defences were strong enough to
hold back a crowd of whatever size may have gathered, because
the fact is that if one of the most heavily-armed police forces
in the world, backed up by the British army, cannot stop a crowd
of unarmed, supposedly 'peaceful' demonstrators, what kind of
message does that send to people who feel under threat?
What kind of message does it send to the thugs who have been allowed
to roam the streets for the past week?
A decision could have been taken to give the demonstrators a time
limit for their protest and after that the road would be cleared.
This could have been done before they had time to settle in and
before the numbers swelled.
The police had thousands of soldiers in the area as back-up, but
seemed unwilling to deploy them.
There does not seem to be any such reluctance when the RUC is
in nationalist areas or facing a nationalist demonstration.
The Orange Order also knew that the parade had been rerouted and
any decision to block the road was illegal, so why was no action
taken against the leaders of the Portadown lodges and unionist
When nationalists block a road they are immediately batoned and
beaten off it without any hesitation and put under curfew.
Over the five days of the 'stand-off' the police took a soft line
and allowed the lawbreaking Orangemen to control events.
They were allowed to attend in shifts so that they were better
rested than the police or army.
Food supplies seemed to have no trouble getting through - despite
the fact that the rest of the north was having difficulty getting
the most basic of needs.
If the RUC had turned supplies away, how long would the stand-off
have continued, at least in the magnitude it reached?
Only two people were injured at Drumcree by plastic bullets over
the five days despite regular, if sporadic, pelting of police
with bricks, bottles and fireworks.
This was in stark contrast to tactics at Garvaghy Road, where
one observer described the police use of plastic bullets as "like
A huge bulldozer was allowed to be brought into the Drumcree area,
armour-plated and covered with threatening graffiti in an implicit
threat to storm the police line.
The chief constable referred specifically to this machine in his
explanation for his decision in allowing the parade - but how
was this machine able to be brought in?
Better still, how does the chief constable explain the obvious
conclusion that his force was intimidated by a single large tractor?
He had the option of at least one huge army bulldozer to deal
with this threat, and, given the much-vaunted prowess of the army's
special forces, could this fearsome machine not have been disabled
by the army in some way?
The bottom line is that the situation should not have been allowed
to develop, and the police should, along with the army, have isolated
Drumcree and prevented freedom of movement to loyalists moving
in and out of Portadown every night, in the same way they did
to nationalists on the Garvaghy Road and in the lower Ormeau.
Every road into the Garvaghy Road area was blocked by police for
the entire five days, and everyone had to prove they were a resident
or had a valid reason for being there.
Every main road into the town could quite easily have been blocked
and only locals and those with good reason let in or out.
The army and police have successfully employed this tactic in
west Belfast - a larger area and with a greater population - over
the past 25 years.
The only conclusion is that the police did not have the will to
impose the rule of law on the Orange Order and loyalists.
They preferred to take the easier option of subjugating the nationalist
community - an option that seems to sit easier with most RUC members,
if recent events in nationalist areas are anything to go by.