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Parades and Marches - The Drumcree Crises by Michel Savaric



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Text and Research: Michel Savaric

The following article has been contributed by the author Michel Savaric. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
'Conflicting Symbols, Symbols of Conflict and Symbolical Conflict - The Drumcree crises' by Michel Savaric

(Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail)


Abstract: The Drumcree crises have been major events of 1995, 96 and 97 because of their violence and the intensity of feelings they have generated. Those crises, which were motivated by a question of symbols, ended up symbolically representing the position of both communities in relation to each other. Finally they have revealed the nature of the conflict as a system inscribed in the very structures of society.

Key words: Northern Ireland, Orange marches, conflict, symbols, power, identities, segregation.

Résumé: Les crises de Drumcree ont été des événements majeurs des années 1995, 96 et 97 tant par leur violence que par l'âpreté des controverses qu'elles ont générées. Motivées par une question de symboles, ces crises ont fini par constituer une représentation symbolique de la position de chaque communauté par rapport à l'autre. Elles ont révélé enfin le conflit en tant que système inscrit dans les structures sociales.

Mots clés : Irlande du Nord, processions orangistes, conflit, symboles, pouvoir, identités, ségrégation.

During the years 1995, 1996 and 1997 the evolution of the Northern Irish conflict focused on the issue of Orange marches. In particular, the procession which took the Orange Order from the Episcopalian church of Drumcree, on the outskirts of Portadown, through the Catholic Garvaghy Road every Sunday before the 'Twelfth' of July has caused three deep crises. My contention is that these crises have revealed the exact nature of the conflict. Through them, Northern Irish society acted out the conflict it nurtures while, at the same time, those crises encapsulated the whole of the conflict.

Approximately ten months into the Irish Republican Army (IRA) ceasefire, the first Drumcree crisis of July 1995 showed in the most striking way that conflict remained in Northern Ireland even without armed violence. On Sunday 9 July 1995 following the decision by the Catholic residents of Garvaghy Road to stage a counter-demonstration the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) ordered the Orange Order to re-route its parade after its religious service at Drumcree parish church. A stand-off then ensued between policemen and Orangemen, led notably by Unionist MP David Trimble (who was to become the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party a few months later) soon joined by Ian Paisley.

After two very tense days, punctuated by riots in loyalist areas and a blockade of the port of Larne, a agreement was reached in the early hours of 11 July. The parade would proceed but without bands and it would not come again on the 12 July. Garvaghy Road residents would stand on the pavement and show their disapproval peacefully with placards and banners. For many commentators in the media, the resolution of the first Drumcree crisis represented a model of compromise and a sign of hope for the future.

The Drumcree crisis of 1996 was much more serious. Indeed the whole society seemed then to become engulfed in violence and no longer just a small number of 'professionals'. Those convulsions took place within a general political context which partly explains them. On 9 February 1996 the IRA ended seventeen months of truce with the spectacular bombing of Canary Wharf in London. The peace process had stalled for many weeks on the question of 'decommissioning'.

For Protestants, this bombing should have ended this peace process in which they had taken part only reluctantly. To the contrary, it seemed to bring about further concessions to terrorists. Thus, at the end of February 1996 the two prime ministers Major and Bruton announced talks to be held on 10 June. Sinn Féin would only be allowed to the negotiating table if the IRA declared a new ceasefire. Undoubtedly, those events galvanised the Protestant community in its refusal of any compromise.

As for the Garvaghy Road residents they bitterly resented the triumphant 'jig' performed by Unionist leaders Paisley and Trimble the previous year in Portadown. The fact the Orange Order viewed as a victory the 'compromise' of the previous year also justified their refusal of any concessions. Moreover, numerous riots had already broken out on the occasion of Orange marches. Therefore many indications signalled that the marching season would have an extremely tense climax.

In 1996 the Drumcree parade was to take place on 7 July. Beforehand, the RUC had warned Orangemen they would not be allowed to proceed along Garvaghy Road. Orangemen, like the year before, vowed to stay in place until the police barricade was removed.

Then from 7 to 10 July, when the parade was blocked, the Protestant community seemed to engage in a subversive operation to bring Northern Ireland to a standstill. The Orange Order blocked all the main roads. Some villages in Counties Antrim and Armagh were cut off from the rest of the world and some Catholic families started to lack food supplies. On 10 July the Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) MP Seamus Mallon had to be evacuated by helicopter from his village of Markethill, County Armagh, so that he could go to the Westminster parliamentary session. He later told the national media of his anxiety: "I think it is the most tense period that I have seen in the past 25 years."

In the early hours of Monday 8 July 1996 the body of 31 year-old taxi driver Michael McGoldrick was discovered in his car, shot in the back of the neck. The killing bore all the hallmarks of a Loyalist sectarian murder but the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) issued statements denying any involvement in this killing. No organisation ever claimed this murder but the rumour had it that it was the work of a local maverick element of the UVF (which became known as the Loyalist Volunteer Force; LVF), beyond the control of the Belfast central command.

A wave of riots and destruction swept loyalist neighbourhoods. As July 12 drew closer the threat of even more serious violence became ominous. On the 10th a huge excavator appeared within the Orange ranks in Drumcree, facing the police cordon. There were rumours that the UVF were ready to use petrol tankers to attack the security forces.

On Thursday 11 July a dramatic turn of events happened. Chief Constable Sir Hugh Annesley finally decided to let the Orangemen parade through Garvaghy Road. All the TV news bulletins later showed images of the RUC baton-charging the crowd of Catholic residents, grabbing, and brutally evacuating people who had gathered there for a sit-in. Later in the evening a huge police operation started in the Catholic Lower Ormeau Road area of Belfast, the second most contested location for Orange marches. Police land-rovers lined the streets, bumper to bumper, along the pavements and across the streets. They only left thirty-six hours later after the Orange Order had paraded.

The whole Catholic community was scathing with indignation at this volte-face. From 12 to 14 July Belfast and Derry saw their biggest demonstrations since the hunger strikes of 1981. All the Catholic areas of Northern Ireland exploded with rage. Riots in particular broke out in Armagh, Ballycastle, Ballymena, Bellaghy, Bushmills, Coalisland, Coleraine, Cookstown, Downpatrick, Dromore, Dungiven, Enniskillen, Garvagh, Greenisland, Keady, Larne, Lisburn, Lurgan, Maghera, Magherafelt, Moy, Newcastle, Newry, Newtownbutler, Pomeroy, Strabane, Whiteabbey. Derry particularly knew some of the worst riots with one dead, Dermot McShane, run over by a British Army armoured vehicle during the night of 12 July.

The following night a bomb explosion totally destroyed Killyhevlin hotel, near Enniskillen, without killing anyone. The IRA later categorically denied any involvement. Rumour had it that it was the work of a local, maverick element (which became known as the Continuity Irish Republican Army; CIRA) beyond the control of the Belfast command.

By comparison, the third Drumcree crisis in 1997 was much less intense. The political context in which it took place was slightly different. The IRA had resumed its bombings within Northern Ireland itself since October and in particular had killed two policemen in Lurgan on 16 June. Loyalist paramilitary organisations had also made several attacks without claiming them, which allowed their political representatives to stay at the negotiating table. Many in the Catholic population felt this represented a blatant injustice.

The general elections saw a 'landslide' victory for the British Labour Party and Marjorie (Mo) Mowlam replaced Sir Patrick Mayhew as Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO). Within Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin's influence was significantly enhanced at those elections and shortly afterwards Unionists lost the control of Belfast City Council at the municipal elections. However the prospect of a flare up of tensions during the 'marching season' had remained the dominant issue and somewhat relegated the importance of those electoral results to a position of secondary importance. Tensions had remained high throughout the year with a Catholic boycott of Protestant shops in some rural areas and loyalist demonstrations in front of a Catholic church at Harryville in Ballymena.

Determined to reach an agreement between Orangemen and Garvaghy Road residents, the new Secretary of State worked tirelessly but in vain. No compromise was reached and the security forces cleared the road during the night of 5 July 1997 in order to allow the procession to go through the next day. The new RUC superintendent Ronnie Flanagan justified his decision later by the threat posed by the recently formed loyalist terrorist group the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF). Predictably violence spread again throughout Catholic neighbourhoods. Compared to the previous year, the IRA made its presence much more visible by attacking the security forces on several occasions.

The attention then focused on the Lower Ormeau Road area where the Orangemen were supposed to march on the Twelfth. Determined to defeat the Protestants, Catholics mobilised and organised. The Republican paramilitary organisation the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) announced it would not hesitate to kill Orangemen. Finally, to everybody's surprise Orange leaders decided during the night of 10 July not to proceed along the Ormeau Road. They justified their decision by the threat posed by the terrorists. Within the following days contacts were renewed between Sinn Féin and the British government. The IRA announced a new ceasefire on 19 July 1997.

It could then be argued that Northern Irish society, by granting so much importance to the marching issue, 'acts' its own drama. It can only consider this representation of the conflict with the greatest gravity because precisely its representation-like aspect must never appear to it. At the same time the representation of the conflict turns into the conflict itself and exerts an influence on political events.

Of course we must not minimise the gravity of those crises, especially that of 1996. Many people then evoked the memory of 1969. In that respect the words Seamus Mallon spoke were significant since one would think a seasoned politician who has lived through, among other events, the 1974 Loyalist strike and the 1981 Republican hunger strikes, would have known tenser periods than that of the summer of 1996. Yet when the 1997 marching season approached, the spectre of civil war seemed to be in everybody's minds.

However, violence in Northern Ireland is highly ritualised. Not only is it part and parcel of the 'tradition' of Orange marches, but the very forms it takes - riots, clashes with the police - seem to obey very ancient rules. Northern Ireland never experiences those states of total disruption of the social order which precede civil wars.

In 1996 riots were not simultaneous: in a strange symmetry, four days of strife in Protestant neighbourhoods gave way to four days of chaos in Catholic areas. In 1997 tension abated after the Orange Order decided to cancel several of its processions. Northern Irish society functions around conflict without ever becoming engulfed by it.

Nevertheless Orange marches are the time - perhaps the only time - of dramatic confrontation between the two communities. This confrontation is first and foremost of a symbolical order. Thus the discourse of the two communities displays a highly symbolical and metaphorical content. The metaphor of the siege is certainly the most significant one. Above all the siege belongs to Loyalist ideology and the Orange narrative. And yet in what was termed the 'Siege of Drumcree' one has to acknowledge that the situation seemed strangely reversed.

Indeed Protestants were this time on the side of the besiegers. But part of the great potency of myths is their elasticity. Protestants were then reacting to what they perceived as a more general siege laid against their values, culture, way of life and everything they called their 'civil and religious liberties'.

One could also be surprised that the Catholic community took up the theme of betrayal after the change of decision of 11 July 1996 and the decision of 6 July 1997 to let the march through. This theme belongs more generally to the Protestant vocabulary. The same ambiguity marks the use made by Catholics of the principle of 'consent'. This way they demand that Protestant brotherhoods only march through their areas with the consent of residents, thereby recognising their right to refuse.

For Catholics, this is a way to turn against Protestants the right they demand to be consulted regarding any change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, a right amounting to a right of veto. Those incessant uses and counter-uses of images and symbols, reversals of arguments as well as those peculiar effects of symmetry show the two communities of Northern Ireland share the same political vocabulary, partake from the same culture, even that a violent, unhealthy connivance deeply binds them.

Thus the three Drumcree crises present themselves like complex inter-lockings of symbols. At the same time they function like a single symbol the formidable evocative potency of which being concentrated within the two decisions to clear Garvaghy Road in order to let the Orangemen go through. They signified that the balance of power in Northern Ireland is still advantageous to the Protestant community.

For Catholics, Orangemen marching through their areas symbolised their status as an oppressed minority and the undiluted power Protestants were still exerting. But what is the reality behind this interpretation? My contention is that only the struggle to impose a set of symbols mattered and the 'victories' of the Orange Order at Drumcree only revealed the predominance of Protestant symbols over Catholic symbols.

Such was the opinion of former civil rights campaigner Eamonn McCann.

"The Orange marches are triumphalist and sectarian and designed in the name of Protestantism to put Catholics in their place. But one of the reasons they are currently so important to Orange leaders is precisely that Protestant power is now largely illusory - and an entirely fraudulent concept as far as Protestant working-class people are concerned. The North is no longer a 'Protestant State for a Protestant people', and ordinary Protestants ought to be pleased about this as many of my own friends are."

For McCann, whose insights are frequently very relevant, Protestants no longer have any real economic or coercive power over Catholics.

Thus everything seems to point out that the conflict of symbols forms the real substance of the Northern Ireland conflict itself. Throughout the Drumcree crises of 1995, 1996 and 1997, the real nature of the conflict revealed itself. The two communities, themselves products of the segregated social structure of Northern Ireland, opposed each other ritually within an unequal relationship with the British state. For the Protestant community the struggle was about maintaining an order which ensured the dominance of its symbols whereas for Catholics it was about overturning this order (such overturn would have been a symbol in itself).

The fact those symbols do not appear to have any substance could seem absurd. I argue here those symbols express and form the base of the identities of the two conflicting parties. There is an organic link between power stakes and identities. Indeed those identities only exist through a power relationship which constantly pushes one against the other. The vicious circle which dominates Northern Irish society is such that the situation of conflict creates two identities which can only fully express themselves through the maintenance of conflict.

Each community's identity is projected on a symbolic field, symbolic field which in turn constitutes the real battlefield. Inversely the situation of conflict is translated in the creation of symbols which become the identities of the two opposing groups. Thus the meaning of symbols such as Orange marches is understood by everybody in Northern Ireland - in effect such symbols really belong to the two communities. They exemplify the dominant position of the Protestant community, they are the symbols of a symbolic power.

Yet the point of the conflict is never to impose one's identity to the other. This would abolish the distinction which is the sine qua non condition for the existence of the two identities. Segregation is therefore at the core of the dynamics of conflict. Thus a power relationship defines two communities in conflict and whose very existence ultimately depends on the maintenance of conflict.


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