Category: Archive

‘A bit over the top’ in Ulster’s Flanders

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Patrick Markey

PORTADOWN, Co. Armagh — This scrappy rural town again became a center of Northern Ireland’s woes Sunday when more than a thousand Orange Order members gathered to celebrate the Battle of the Somme and protest a ban on their annual march to Drumcree Church through the nationalist Garvaghy Road area.

A small army of men in black suits and orange and blue sashes crowded onto Portadown’s Carleton Street outside the local Lodge Hall as Orange Order leaders called for those intent on violence to stay away. Denis Watson, the County Armagh grand master and David Burrowes, Portadown deputy leader, rallied the brethren with talk of Protestant rights and privileges.

"We will march to the Garvaghy with our heads held high," Watson said before a pastor lead the gathering in a prayer.

Milling among them were the Long March participants, who had made their way from Derry to demonstrate for Protestant Civil Rights. They carried banners that read, "The Real Victims" and "A Voice for Real Justice in Northern Ireland."

Standing with his back against wall, one Belfast man with a neatly trimmed beard expressed what many protesters felt about the banning of their route through Garvaghy Road. With the commemoration of the Somme, the comparisons of Drumcree’s barbed-wire fortifications to World War I seemed most appropriate, he said.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

"It is a bit over the top, don’t you think? Here we have the Crown forces stopping Unionists from walking the queen’s highway. Hitler would have had a hard time getting through that, and look what he was up to," he said.

Explained his friend, a treasurer from the same Belfast Lodge, at issue was the erosion of their Unionist culture.

"Look at all the parades they are trying to ban," he said. "This one might be contentious, but its nowhere near their communities. Look at Londonderry, we march around the wall, nowhere near their community.

"The Orange Order have told the troublemakers to stay away. The majority of people don’t want any bother."

So four abreast and with the Star of David Accordion Band drumming out a hymn to polite applause from the Portadown townsfolk, the marchers stepped forward. A civil occasion in a quaint town.

Sitting in the paved square in front of the town’s St. Mark’s Church of Ireland, Julie Ann, a 27-year-old mother, wondered how the Orangemen’s march had caused so much offense.

"What did it do when it marched through the town? Nothing. How can that be offensive?" she asked as the tail end of the march disappeared past down the street.

With her 7-month-old son Matthew’s pram decorated with a white Ulster flag depicting King William and the queen, Julie Ann, a Portadown resident, complained the nationalist population was trying to oust Protestants from the town.

"It used to be them in the minority; now we’re getting our civil rights taken off us. We should be able to protest in peace," she said.

Margaret Forde, filming the parade with her husband, agreed.

"Years ago we’d have tea parties up there," she said. "I worry about my daughter going through there to college now," the Portadown woman said.

As army helicopters buzzed overhead, the march snaked its way through the town and up to the far end of Garvaghy Road, where riot police formed a barrier between the two communities. Behind them British Army vehicles lined along the street beside St. John’s Catholic Church.

But Sunday’s parade passed through without incident. Comments were made, glances exchanged, but no serious disturbance broke out. Orange leaders had been determined to keep control of the march.

The Order’s primary concern was the safety of the protesters and insuring innocent bystanders were not injured, said David Jones, spokesman for the Portadown lodge.

A British fortress

Before banks of television cameras representing the world’s media on the opposite side of British Army fortifications, the Orangemen approached the steel green blockade blocking their route through the Garvaghy. They were met by hundreds of protesters already there. Portadown District Master Harold Gracey has been at Drumcree since last year’s march.

British troops had turned the fields into a fortress. Meters of coiled razor wire littered the no-man’s land between the two sides. A muddy moat newly created by British Army diggers and earth scarred with trenches completed the fortifications.

They were prepared for the worst. On the Saturday before the march, Orangemen supporting their Portadown brethren marched to the barbed wire at St. John’s Church playing "The Sash" and disturbing the Mass being held at the church. On Saturday night, drunken protesters pelted the steel barricades at Drumcree with missiles.

For a few tense hours over the weekend, it seemed that violence again might erupt in Drumcree’s fields as it had the three years before.

But this year there would be no storming of the barricades, at least on Sunday.

But on the Garvaghy Road, suspicions were running wild. Speculation was rife that a deal had been done with the British government to allow the Orangemen to march through at a later date.

"We’re just trying to get on with our lives," said Jim, a lifelong Garvaghy resident who asked that only his first name be used.

"They have the rest of the town to march in, if they want to march. This is a nationalist area. The fear is here," he said.

Brid Rogers, SDLP assemblywoman for Upper Bann, said that although it was welcome that the Orange Order had keep a lid on violence, the problem had still not been solved.

"Nothing has changed except that for one day out of 365, the order have taken a tentative step to bringing an absence of violence," she said. There was still a need for genuine engagement, she said.

Nightfall on Sunday brought more familiar scenes. Police arrested two men after about 150 protesters who attempted to storm the barbed wire blockading St. John’s Church. Police fired one plastic baton round and used dogs and helicopters to disperse the crowd.

But by Monday morning, the furrowed fields were emptied of all but a few supporters. The world media, who had camped out across from Drumcree, were starting to pack up as last year’s disruptions failed to materialize.

A few soldiers at Drumcree lay relaxing in the afternoon; others played badminton over a net strung between an armored car and a hedge. Despite the relatively relaxed air, however, nobody would dare say that it would "all be over by Christmas."

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese