A company of soldiers was on standby for two contentious loyal order parades in 1986, according to declassified Government records.
The troops – which were on call should serious disorder develop at 1986 marches in Portadown and Downpatrick – were, in the end, not needed, but their involvement indicates the resolve of the Government and the RUC of the time to enforce decisions about parade routes.
A decade later, troops would play a key role in preventing Orangemen from marching in that same parade at Drumcree on the outskirts of Portadown.
A July 2 1986 memo from WJA Innes at the NIO – which has been declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the new 20-year rule – stated that the Army’s Headquarters Northern Ireland was “in the picture about RUC plans” for flashpoint marches on the Twelfth, particularly around Portadown’s Garvaghy Road area.
It said: “The RUC had a company on standby in the Downpatrick march, but had no need to call on them.
“Troops will similarly be on standby in Portadown for this weekend.”
The memo said that the Orange and Royal Black leaderships had shown “a fair degree of co-operation” with the RUC and the Orange Order had issued a statement condemning an attack on police during marches in east Belfast.
It went on: “But they are under pressure from the hard men: Alan Wright (Ulster Clubs) is particularly active in relation to Portadown (which is his base).”
Another note by J A Daniell, private secretary to Secretary of State Tom King, said that Mr King had met alone with RUC Chief Constable Sir John Hermon on June 26 1986.
“The Chief Constable reported that the hard men were taking control of arrangements for Orange Lodge marches in Portadown,” he wrote.
“It was their clear intention to march down Obin Street on July 6 and, if prevented from parading in the street, to conduct a church service at the end of it.
“In the light of this information the Chief Constable was minded to re-route.
“The Chief Constable said that he was anxious to avoid involving the Army in the control of parades and marches; also he hoped not to have to ban any marches.”
Elsewhere in the same file on parading, an August 1985 telegram from the British Embassy in Dublin said that “while Irish ministers had not commented publicly so far they were privately most appreciative of the professionalism the RUC had shown throughout the last month, at Portadown in particular and more recently in Downpatrick.”
The documents also reveal a candid assessment from senior Orangemen, including the then Grand Master, the Rev Martin Smyth, of the problems with some of their parades.
During an April 1985 meeting with the Secretary of State, the Rev Smyth “recognised that there were rowdy elements in some lodges”, one document records.
However, he appeared to pin most of the blame for trouble not on those “rowdy elements”, but on the RUC, stating that “the RUC created problems for themselves by establishing too great a presence at marches where often the marshalls could themselves maintain adequate order”.
Another, more detailed, note of a meeting between the Secretary of State and three senior UUP figures – leader Jim Molyneaux, the Rev Smyth and deputy leader Harold McCusker, all of whom were Orangemen – in late June 1985 recorded: “Mr Molyneaux said ... Official Unionists accepted that there were now too many bands of the ‘kick the Pope’ type getting involved in legitimate Orange marches; and it was important to make a distinction between traditional Orange marches and the independent Orange parades, the latter being essentially Paisleyite.
“It would be a disastrous mistake for the Chief Constable to respond to the provocative rowdy elements by attempting to take on the main body of respectable marches.
“The Chief Constable had to be pushed back from the brink of ‘detonating Northern Ireland’.
“If he were pushed back from the brink, the three Official Unionist MPs at the meeting could assist the Secretary of State in seeking to reduce the number of coat-trailing parades and in reducing the influence of the more rowdy elements.”
The minutes also reveal that Mr McCusker proposed a compromise which would have involved restrictions on a traditional Twelfth march.
He said that as the July 7 Sunday church parade “would by its nature be a less heated affair than the marches on 12 and 13 July”, it should be left to follow its traditional route “while constraints could be imposed on the marches on 12 and 13 July”, something he said would be “a reasonable stance” and “better than causing offence on a Sunday”.