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'Questions following U-Turn' - Irish News editorial, 13 July 1996

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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 leaders?

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 confetti".

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.

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