State Papers: Drumcree 1998 – Blair tried to end dispute with economic fund

Unionists felt if they lost battle in Portadown ‘they had no future’

A major attempt to resolve the fraught Drumcree issue following the violence which occurred in July 1998 – culminating in the murder of the three Quinn children by loyalists in Ballymoney, Co Antrim – is covered in newly declassified files released in Belfast.

In a Northern Ireland Office (NIO) record dated October 16th, 1998, officials met with Brendan McKenna of the Garvaghy Road residents who said he believed a “limited march each year for the next five years” might he acceptable to nationalists. However, the Catholic residents “would want to walk down with the Orangemen”.

The initiative was given public support by Archbishop Robin Eames in October 1998 in which he encouraged both sides to seek a compromise.

Meanwhile, the NIO was giving serious concern to an economic package – of £15 million over three to five years – to accompany any resolution of the long-festering dispute.

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The views of the local Orange Order were expressed to NIO officials and two members of the Parades Commission at a meeting on October 17th.Grand Master Harold Gracey said that, if the 1998 parade did not go down Garvaghy Road that year, there would have to be two parades the following year.

‘Intent on violence’

“The Orange representatives said it was becoming increasingly difficult to hold back those who were intent on violence in the town.”

They reiterated their opposition to the Parades Commission. They also expressed concern that the proposed economic initiative for Portadown would benefit only one section of the community to the detriment of the Protestant population whose areas of the town were as deprived as Garvaghy Road.

Responding, Stephen Leech of the NIO said that if the Orangemen agreed to meet with the residents, this “would tilt the debate over the marches in their favour”.

Tensions continued to run high and on October 6th, 1998, an RUC constable, Frank O’Reilly, was killed by a loyalist blast bomb in Portadown.

In a final effort to promote dialogue on the impasse, British prime minister Tony Blair met Orange Order representatives in London on November 23rd.

‘Demonised in the media’

Mr Gracey said that the blocking of the parade was an attack on the Protestant people all over Northern Ireland “They had been demonised in the media after the Ballymoney murders [of the three Quinn children] and support had fallen away. But now it was returning.”

Asked about an economic package for the area, the prime minister said it could not be taken forward when “a kind of civil war continued”.

In conclusion, Mr Gracey said that the problem was not Drumcree Church or Garvaghy Road. “The parade could not take another road. If they did so, they would not be allowed back into their communities. Portadown was seen as a symbol by Protestants and unionists in NI. If they lost that battle, they had no future.”

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