Declassified files: Drumcree crisis ‘a disaster for both communities that helped IRA’

The Drumcree crisis was “a disaster for both communities”, a high-level committee which brought together senior security figures and NIO officials was told in 1996.

By Sam McBride
Monday, 30th December 2019, 7:30 am
David Trimble (left) and Ian Paisley leading the parade in 1995 after a stand-off was followed by a decision to allow Orangemen along the Garvaghy Road
David Trimble (left) and Ian Paisley leading the parade in 1995 after a stand-off was followed by a decision to allow Orangemen along the Garvaghy Road

Although there had been a long history of parade conflicts in Portadown, the formation of the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition in 1995 became the catalyst for what would become one of the defining crises of 1990s Northern Ireland.

That July the annual Orange Order return parade from a service in Drumcree Parish Church was blocked by residents, leading to a stand-off which involved roadblocks and violence across Northern Ireland.

With thousands of Orangemen and their supporters converging on Drumcree, a compromise was agreed to let them silently march down the Garvaghy Road.

The following year, the RUC banned the parade, precipitating a huge stand-off with Orangemen and loyalists and a pledge from Orange grand master – and South Belfast Ulster Unionist MP – the Rev Martin Smyth that there could be no compromise.

Catholic taxi driver Michael McGoldrick was murdered by loyalists near Lurgan and amid massive pressure from loyalists to physically force the parade through, the chief constable reversed the ban and allowed the march to proceed, prompting a backlash from many nationalists and republicans.

Less than a month after the 1996 Drumcree stand-off, the government’s Committee on the Security Forces and the Community met on August 8, 1996 to discuss the security situation.

Files declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20-year rule show that a Mr Woods from the Army’s third infantry brigade reported that “support for Sinn Fein had clearly increased since Drumcree, with the party regaining any support lost as a result of the Manchester bombing.

“The nationalist community in the brigade area had felt betrayed by the RUC over action at Drumcree. It was felt that recent events could help PIRA recruitment and tourism was already being affected ... the feelings of both communities were as far apart as they had ever been.”

A minute of the meeting said that “Drumcree was, quite simply, a disaster for both communities and their relationships with the police. They were now as far apart as ever.

“There was a total loss of confidence in the RUC and there was criticism of its senior officers.

“Father Dooley, the parish priest in Drumcree, had said that relations between the RUC and local nationalists were at an all time low.

“There was a perception that the RUC had not been impartial in their dealings at Drumcree and there were some allegations of collusion ...”

The minute went on: “It was reported in Newtownstewart that 30 people had transferred their bank accounts because they had seen their bank manager at Drumcree and later on the deputy manager had been spotted at a road block.

“A diabetic woman in Castlederg had found her pharmacist blocking the road when she had been on her way to get her insulin supply. She had subsequently changed her chemist.”

Separately, the files refer to a meeting which the new Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, had with Taoiseach John Bruton at Mr Bruton’s home in Dublin.

During the meeting, the Upper Bann MP warned the taoiseach about the situation developing in Portadown.

A May 13 Downing Street memo from the prime minister’s private secretary, John Holmes, relayed what he had been told about the discussion by Irish official Paddy Teahon.

On parades, it said: “Trimble had spelt out his concern about the possibility of real trouble during this summer’s marching season, particularly at Drumcree.

“The taoiseach had been worried by this. Trimble had suggested that he was under a lot of pressure himself.”

In another meeting, involving Sir John Wheeler and Mr Trimble on May 20, 1996, Mr Trimble was noted to have articulated a view which “represented very real movement from Mr Trimble who undertook to work actively to sell a compromise to local Orangemen with a view to taking the moral high ground”.

Files open to public

The declassified files on which the News Letter reports today, and over coming days, have been released at the Public Record Office in Belfast where from today anyone can go to view the original documents.

As the old 30-year rule for declassifications is cut to 20 years, one year of files is being released each six months.

The files are released based on the year in which they were closed – in this case, 1995 – but such files may contain documents which go back several years or a stray file from much earlier.