Northern Ireland Conflict 1994
The months dragged slowly by and despite much scepticism the ceasfire held and in October the loyalist paramilitary groups also declared a ceasefire. It differed to the IRA ceasefire as it also included an apology to the victims of the families over the past 25 years. These loyalist paramiltaries now began to move to the political world with the UVF being represented by the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) under the leadership of David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson. This new party and most of their nominated spokes persons were ex-prisoners, and most had served prison sentences. At a time when it was uncertain how loyalist paramilitaries would react and behave, they showed a rather progressive leadership, having had similar backgrounds to many republicans, although from opposite sides of the divide. Probably the one thing that they shared in common was their social working class.
Ian Paisley did however remain a dissenting voice stating that Ulster faced a crisis as he believed the Ulster Protestants had been betrayed by London and others were now speaking and negotiating with Sinn Fein and Republicanism. Nationalists had generally welcomed the ceasefires and now waited with some expectancy for some political movement which was slow to arrive. Dublin had set up a forum for peace and reconciliation and they included nationalist politicians in this forum, however London and the Unionists remained highly sceptical and even confused by the ceasefire and what was to happen next.
Punishment beatings continued as did various other IRA activities and when a postman was shot, there were those who thought the ceasefire was either over or in serious danger of being seen as a valid ceasefire. The IRA quickly moved to deny any involvement or sanctioning of the robbery and in particular the actual shooting. Days and weeks of speculation followed this and for many they believed that this could be a quick end to any political settlement. To make matters worse, Albert Reynolds and his party in the Irish Republic also became embroiled in a crisis. His party collapsed quickly around him but it had little or no impact on the peace process though many thought it could have ruined it, as he was one of the original architects.
The new Taoiseach John Bruton however had never been a huge fan of the actual process and in fact disliked both Sinn Fein and the IRA. Time did tick slowly past and things did change a little in Northern Ireland as the British Army became less visible on the streets and Police Land Rovers also reduced in visibility, being slowly replaced with more normal signs of policing. Cross border roads were re-opened and various peaceline barriers were opened in the city of Belfast. The impact of this was there for all to see and somehow these visual signs delivered a bigger impact on the realisation that some progress was being made, be it only small steps.
In February 1995 the British and Irish governments jointly published a “framework document” setting out a joint vision for the future. This document pictured Northern Ireland remaining as part of the United Kingdom and stressed the importance of Unionist consent should this status wish to be changed. It also stated that the Irishness of nationalists should be expressed through an input from Dublin and through new cross-border institutions. Unionist politicians instantly objected to accept the document as it did not want any interference from Dublin. There has always been a strong belief from Ulster Protestants that although they would work with the Irish government where it would assist both countries, they were not prepared to have the Irish government have any decision making power in Northern Ireland. Any discussion that even hinted of that possibility was always rejected out of hand.
The argument moved to a new position and for most of 1995 the emphasis moved to the process of decommissioning of IRA weaponry. Gerry Adams agreed that this should be part of the solution but should not be a pre-condition for political inclusion and moving the process forwards. Yet another barrier to progress had been set up and this one was a large hurdle.
The IRA would not decommisson without signs of political progress and the mainstream would not discuss progress without visible signs of the IRA giving up their arms. The argument for Sinn Fein was that to ask the IRA to do this would be considered as a military defeat, something which they would not concede. The argument on the Unionist side was that if the IRA were vowed to peace, then why did they need guns?. To work around this, Sir Patrick Mayhew set out a number of conditions that Sinn Fein would have to meet before they would be allowed into the political process and republicans took the position that the continued ceasefire of the IRA was proof in itself that they wished to engage in political methods only and so the stalemate continued.
What was interesting in this was that Bruton the Taoiseach also suggested that the IRA should make some type of gesture on decommissioning to help move the process on. Due to these various pre-conditions and time slipping past without any political process, by mid-1995 the IRA ceasefire was under immense pressure to continue and started to become uneasy.
Drumcree - Portadown Northern Ireland
The marching season was approaching and this culminated on the 12th July as Orangemen celebrated the winning of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. As always the marching season in Northern Ireland brought with it a sense of trepidation and in this political vaccum it was likely that the situation could become more tense than usual.
It proved to be the case and it happened at Drumcree church near the town of Portadown in County Armagh. The RUC attempted to re-route an Orange demonstration to prevent it going down the Catholic Garvaghy Road and after days with thousands of Orangemen congregating at Dumcree, the RUC eventually allowed the march to take place. It was seen as a triumph for militant loyalism and Ian Paisley together with the local Unionist MP, David Trimble celebrated this success by holding each others hands aloft as they walked through a cheering crowd.
Marching had always been controversial but this single march was to prove controversial in many ways. Not long after that Trimble replaced James Molyneaux as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and at that time he was viewed as the most hard line of the potential candidates. Trimble had always been to the right of Ulster Unionism and buoyed by his success at Drumcree, his election was not actually that surprising as it summed up in general the unionist attitude to the ceasefire. That attitude was generally one of considering the ceasefire as a threat to the status quo rather than as an opportunity for political stability and future inclusive process.
Up to this point I like many others had never heard of Drumcree and was completely unaware that it even existed. It now filled the news every hour and for days until every single person in Northern Ireland knew exactly where it was. It was very strange to see men with bowler hats and sashes determined to walk down a road where no-one living there actually wanted them to be. It was also strange to see how many people could suddenly assemble in such a short space of time. It was also strange to see the RUC change their mind when faced with such volumes of people. Northern Ireland would probably have been divided into three camps, Unionists who believed the Orangemen should be allowed to march, nationalists who believed they shouldn’t and a group in the middle who just wondered why does it matter.
Towards Christmas of 1995 and following lengthy negotiations between the Irish and British governments an agreement was made to appoint a three person international body to report on any decommissioning process.
It would be chaired by US Senator George Mitchell and would also include a Canadian General John de Chastelain and Harri Holkeri a former Prime Minister of Finland. The announcement of this was quickly followed up by a visit to Belfast of the USA President Bill Clinton. He was given a wonderful reception in both Belfast and Derry and his visit was viewed generally as a celebration of peace.
I remember taking my family to see Clinton in Belfast. We went for two reasons, the main one being to support the peace process and the other to see in person a USA President. However within weeks of his visit the IRA ceasefire started to look under increasing pressure. Four alleged drug dealers and petty criminals were shot dead in Belfast and responsibility was claimed by an organisation calling itself “Direct Action Against Drugs” but few if any doubted it was actually the IRA behind the shootings. The ceasefire survived Christmas and then Senator Mitchell delivered his first report.
In this it stated that prior decommissioning would not happen as a precondition and that it should run in parallel with political negotiations. This was based on discussions the committee had with the RUC and the Gardai and yet the committee also knew that John Major would likely reject the report unless there was prior decommissioning. Major did this as was expected much to the pleasure of Trimble and the Unionists and the dismay of nationalists. It seemed once again that a process that had got so far had been thwarted yet again over a single sticking point that no-one was prepared to move on. I could assume now that you the reader could guess what would happen next.
Late one Friday evening in February a huge bomb exploded not far from the Canary Wharf in London which claimed two lives and caused huge damage. For many this signalled the end of the peace process and a return to war by the IRA. Those who had always been doubtful of the IRA ceasefire now felt justified in their scepticism and others on the nationalist side had surmised it would only be a matter of time due to the lack of any willingness to progress political dialogue.
Generally the bombing was met with dismay and frustration and more bombings were to come but noticeably none in Northern Ireland. I saw this for the first time on the news when I came home from work. My reaction was little more than a roll of my eyes and a shake of the head. Once again the politicians of Northern Ireland had failed the ordinary people and the extremists on both sides had been victorious once again.
An election was called in Northern Ireland which was what the Unionists had wanted and nationalists had not. To the surprise of many Sinn Fein were the main beneficiaries in the election capturing 15% of the vote. The SDLP vote dropped slightly but both John Hume and Gerry Adams received huge personal votes.
The bombings and violence continued and political talks took place in Belfast which excluded Sinn Fein. June then brought with it a wave of IRA violence with a large bomb in Manchester which injured over 200 people and this was followed by a mortar attack on a British army base in Germany. An Irish detective, Jerry McCabe was also shot in the Republic of Ireland during a robbery and this sent shockwaves through the Irish Republic.
It was once again the marching season and Drumcree in 1996 was once again to raise its head as the focus of an entire Province’s attention. The Orange Order were very proud of its success when they succeeded in marching down the Garvaghy Road at Drumcree in 1995, and so proud of that were they, that they issued “Siege of Drumcree Medals” to celebrate the occasion.
It was predicted that Drumcree could once again prove to be a flash point but not a single person could have foreseen what this epic marching month would bring. In simple terms the Protestant marchers were intent on walking down the Garvaghy Road and the nationalist residents were equally determined that they would not go down that road. The Protestant marchers remained steadfast that they had an absolute right to march along their traditional route, a route they had marched for many years and nationalists were at the point where they had decided they would no longer be subject to any form of March, especially after the scenes of triumphalism that had taken place the previous year.
As in the previous year the RUC once again banned the parade from going down the Garvaghy Road. When the Orangemen turned up to march they found their way blocked by barbed wire, armoured Land Rovers and RUC in full riot gear. The Orangemen did not disperse as advised to so by the RUC and said they would stay there as long as was required to march down the Garvaghy Road.
The Portadown Orangemen were joined by thousands of supporters and also by David Trimble and some of the loyalist protestors began to engage in abuse of the RUC. This type of behaviour extended to other areas of Northern Ireland and loyalists started to barricade roads in an attempt to bring Northern Ireland once again to a stand still.
I remember trying to get home from work and a usual fifteen minute journey was now taking anything between one to two hours. There was a huge feeling of anxiety with people only coming out to go to work and then leaving as soon as they could to get home safely. Roads were littered with broken glass and bricks and cars could be seen burning out on road sides. It did bring me back to the early days of the 1970s.
Police and their families suffered widespread intimidation and some towns were in effect sealed off completely. Close to Drumcree a Catholic man was shot by loyalists as burning and looting took place in areas of Belfast. The tension built until the actual twelth of July itself and a number of loyalists turned up with a bulldozer fitted with makeshift armour and threatened to drive it through the police lines. Tens of thousands of Orangemen were getting ready to march across Northern Ireland and there were not enough police and army to police them all, and faced with the prospect of widespread violence Hugh Annesley, the Chief of the RUC once again reversed his decision and agreed to allow the march down the Garvaghy Road. The vast numbers of people who had gathered once again won the day.
The Catholics on the Garvaghy Road had staged a sit down protest and that meant the RUC would have to move them from the road and allow the marchers down. Riot police moved in and cleared the Garvaghy Road and television cameras captured the rough handling by the RUC to achieve this objective.
The Orangemen then walked down the road and nationalists in a number of districts responded by rioting. In Londonderry a man was killed and the very fabric of society had been torn apart by the clash of opposing cultures.
This was as close as Northern Ireland had come to an all out civil war and everyone knew that this episode was far from over. There are no words to explain to you the reader what the atmosphere was like to live in. Violence of any kind is bad and dangerous but continued and sporadic violence spreads pure terror. Somehow amidst all of this, talks had managed to continue with George Mitchell moving his role from purely decommissioning to one of chairing talks which would prove to be long and tedious in nature.
The IRA then planted two 800 lb bombs using three cars in the Army HQ near Lisburn, a target which many had considered to be attack proof. 31 people were injured and one soldier died later as a result of these injuries.