The long march into infamy (News Letter)

By Victor Gordon
BACK in the 1950s during my teenage years when I lived on the Garvaghy Road in Portadown ‘Drumcree Sunday’ was a quiet affair.
The outward parade started at Carleton Street Orange Hall, wove its way down the mainly nationalist Obins Street, where it had been more or less tolerated over the decades, the service took place at Drumcree Parish Church, and then proceeded back to Carleton Street, via the Garvaghy Road.
As it passed our front door at about 1.15pm, we’d usually go out to watch – provided our Sunday dinner wasn’t getting cold. Fast-forward to 1984, the first year when the outward parade through Obins Street was banned. In the meantime, the Troubles were in full swing. Portadown – formerly integrated – was becoming segregated, the first murder (July 1972) was in the Garvaghy Road area and the parade had become a hot potato.
A nationalist band in July 1984 applied to walk part of the Drumcree route, a group of loyalists held a “prayer meeting” to stop them, the band was halted at police lines on the Garvaghy Road, and thus in a quid-pro-quo move by the RUC, Obins Street never again reverberated to “Orange feet and bands”.
There was much violence, but all erstwhile Obins Street Orange parades – including ‘feeder’ parades into Portadown during the Twelfth period – were henceforth re-routed.
Brendan McKenna was the front-runner on the nationalist side, and it all came to a head in the mid and late-1990s, culminating in the famed ‘Siege of Drumcree’ – with Upper Bann MP (and later First Minister) David Trimble to the fore. After the Brethren at ‘The Hill’ from the Sunday until the Tuesday in 1997, the authorities finally relented, and the parade got through.
Ian Paisley met the marchers at the bottom of Garvaghy Road (aka locally as ‘Parkmount’ and ‘The Walk’) and he and Trimble performed the well-documented ‘victory dance’ in Carleton Street.
That was the last time it got through. There was fierce violence the following year, but the authorities stood firm, and the then District Master Harold Gracey declared they would remain on The Hill until they succeeded in “walking the traditional route”.
By the turn of the millennium, peace had broken out, but there were many twists and turns to come, with the Parades Commission continuing to re-route the parade.
The nationalist Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition(GRRC) demanded face-to-face talks – which the Orange side refused – and the GRRC also threw in a few conditions which they said were important to a peaceful Portadown, with the Orangemen insisting “parade matters only”.
But under new District Master Darryl Hewitt, the Orange side agreed on unconditional talks, which was the signal for the GRRC to adopt the former Orange stance and refuse to go to the table.
Since the original 1998 re-routing, the brethren have, every Sunday, staged a one o’clock protest – yesterday was the 5,000th milestone.
Meanwhile, the Parades Commission pays lip service to accommodating face-to-face talks, but has failed to effect that noble principle, while the GRRC dismisses Drumcree as “a dead duck”.
It’s stalemate, with the GRRC having washed its hands of the whole affair, while the Orangemen say that protests will continue. Unionists and Republicans are sharing power in Stormont these days, but Drumcree remains unsolved.
Will it ever be sorted out?
Anything’s possible …


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