Parades and Marches - The Drumcree Crises by Michel Savaric
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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.
(Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail)
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
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
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
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
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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