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The Drumcree march

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Siege of Drumcree


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Siege of Drumcree
Riots sparked by the Drumcree march, 1997

The Orange Order march at Drumcree Chruch outside Portadown has become an annual flashpoint for protest and violence during the summer marching season as loyalists and nationalists elevated the parade to the symbolic status of representing the core of the conflict between the comunities.

The Orange Order, the largest Protestant organisation in Northern Ireland, has marched this route since 1807. However, the march passes through the predominantly nationalist Garvaghy Road area of Portadown where a well-organised campaign against the parade developed.

The Orange Order insisted that it was their right to legally and peacefully walk down the road. The residents said that it was their equal right not to be subjected to what they perceived to be a triumphalist display of sectarianism.

The first serious stand-off over the parade came in 1995 when the RUC banned the march and Orangemen refused to leave the area. Loyalists began a series of roadblocks across the province but a compromise was reached whereby the a limited march, in silence, was allowed down the road.

Despite a year of negotiations, the situation had not improved by 1996. Amid renewed fears of violence, the RUC blocked the parade at Drumcree Church once more.

Loyalists across Northern Ireland rallied to the cause with a massive turn-out of Orange Order members on the hill. Elsewhere, there were more road blocks, vehicle hijackings and some petrol-bombings of Catholic households, The Loyalist Volunteer Force, the most militant of the loyalist paramilitaries, admitted killing a Catholic taxi driver. The RUC used plastic bullets against rioters and the British government sent in 1,000 more troops to prevent the police from being over-stretched. There were 90 civilian and 50 RUC injuries in four days of violence which included 758 attacks on police officers.

As the violence continued, loyalists brought a mechanical digger to the barricades and the RUC reversed its decision to ban the march, fearing worse violence to come if the march did not go ahead.

Police wearing riot gear cleared protesting residents off the road to allow the marchers through. But as soon as the march passed, youths began throwing petrol bombs and stones at the RUC, who responded with plastic bullets. Rioting broke out in other nationalist areas of the province as a reaction to the parade. In Derry alone, protesters threw approximately 1,000 petrol bombs and faced the same number of plastic bullets in return.

In 1997 the new Labour Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam allowed the march - though only at the cost of effectively barricading the residents into their homes. An official document leaked to a Belfast journalist revealed that the government believed allowing the march was "the least worst option".

The new government sought to break the impasse over parades by establishing an independent commission to rule on the validity of each march. But its decision to ban the 1998 parade led to the worst violence yet at Drumcree.

As the Orange Order continued another stand-off, three children - Richard, Mark and Jason Quinn, aged 11, 9 and 7, died when their home in Ballymoney in County Antrim was petrol bombed. The RUC said that the children, whose mother was Catholic, were the victims of a sectarian attack.

The shocking nature of the deaths led to the first discernable fault lines in the Orange Order as many moderate members believed that the stand off had gone too far.

Since that summer, however, the organisation has maintained its protest at Drumcree, saying that it will continue until it is allowed down the road.

The 1999 march passed, to everyone's suprise, peacefully, when the Orange Order agreed to stand by the ruling, believing that it had brokered some form of deal with Prime Minister Tony Blair.

After a year of no deal becoming apparent, the protests began again in 2000 with the Order calling on loyalists to man road blocks and bring Northern Ireland to a standstill. But cracks appeared yet again in the united stand.

The most controversial moment came with the appearance of the loyalist paramilitary Johnny Adair, previously convicted of directing terrorism, in the Orange Order lines. Many sympathisers to the Orange Order or moderate members decided to stay away.

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