The News Letter can today reveal the extraordinary lengths to which Portadown Orangemen have gone in an attempt to secure talks with Garvaghy Road residents.
In an interview with this newspaper, Portadown District Master Darryl Hewitt has for the first time made public that he even enlisted a senior Roman Catholic priest to chair talks and agreed to hold the discussions at a Catholic retreat centre in south Armagh.
In the frank interview, Mr Hewitt set out the Order’s eagerness to enter talks where it is prepared to make huge compromises, with “all options on the table”, including what would be the ultimate concession - the possibility of there never being another Drumcree march after it completes the 1998 parade.
For years, Orangemen famously refused to talk to the residents and it is unprecedented for the Order, which is founded on opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, to offer talks chaired by a priest.
In an attempt to demonstrate good faith, Mr Hewitt said that the 2014 talks proposal had been kept ultra-secret until now. But Mr Hewitt - who is seen as one of the Order’s most pragmatic senior figures - has told of his dismay that the offer was spurned by the residents and his fury that the chair of the Parades Commission dismissed the gesture, making clear that she would not put pressure on the residents to engage in dialogue.
Only a tiny handful of senior local Orangemen knew of the initiative when it began.
Now, after waiting in vain for two years for the residents to agree to the talks, Mr Hewitt now decided to set out what has gone on.
The successor to Harold Gracey also warned that the dispute - which once brought all of Northern Ireland to a standstill but which has been largely forgotten outside of the immediate area over the last decade - would continue
This year the huge Co Armagh Twelfth demonstration will be held in Portadown, just two days after the town’s Orangemen again attempt to complete the banned section of their 1998 parade along Garvaghy Road.
Mr Hewitt said he was “very, very disappointed” that the residents had not taken up the offer.
“For years we were told by the spokesperson for Garvaghy Road residents ‘no talk; no walk’. Yet when we have got Portadown District - about 2,000 people - to change its mind and said that we could meet the residents; that we could meet anybody that we felt could move the situation forward...there has just been no response.”
Setting out a radically new Orange approach in which the Order explicitly states that it is prepared to make major compromises, Mr Hewitt told the News Letter: “We want our civil and religious liberties restored and everything is on the table regarding the parade.
“That could mean a parade every year; it could mean a parade every other year; it could mean a parade never; it could mean a parade every ten years; it could mean a parade on a special anniversary whatever that would be - that’s for the end game of a serious set of talks, which I believe could be done by this system that I have asked the senior clerics to facilitate.”
And he highlighted that although the Order was a marching organisation and therefore wanted to parade as frequently as possible, in his time as District Master the Order in Portadown had not said “we want to walk Garvaghy Road every year, adding: “We realise that there have to be negotiations. There has to be accommodation...there are all sorts of possibilities.”
Speaking with unusual candour for a senior Orange figure, he went on to say of the wider parading situation: “I think there was a time, being perfectly blunt, when the Orange Institution believed that it could do whatever it wanted and everybody danced to its tune. And that may have been the case in the 1950s and previous to that. But the world has moved on.
“Portadown District believed at that time - and I was a lodge officer going to the meetings where all the decisions were being made and in all honesty I backed them 100 per cent that we shouldn’t talk to the residents, we shouldn’t do this, we shouldn’t do that; I was in full favour of that.”
Several times, Mr Hewitt emphasised that “I’m not criticising the then district officers one iota” but said that when he had taken over as district master 11 years ago he realised that he would have to use “a different tactic”, realising that “we’re never going to get this situation resolved unless we’re willing to talk”.
He recalled: “I was sitting in the body of the meeting when the late Harold Gracey said ‘brethren, are we going to talk to the residents or not?’. I would have been one of the first, in all honesty, on my feet saying ‘No, you don’t [talk]’. That was my view at the time.”
What persuaded him otherwise?
“Pragmatism, I suppose, getting older a bit and also that you’re now in a senior position and whatever you decide to do affects 900 men...I think we have to be more open.
“I keep going back 20 years and asking myself ‘If I was district master of Portadown would I have met Gerry Adams; would I have met Cardinal Brady?’ And the answer is that no, I probably wouldn’t have.”