Northern Ireland

NI 1985/1986 state papers: Orange march 'lowest point' in Anglo-Irish relations

Drumcree in 1998 Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption The Drumcree dispute of the 1990s was presaged by violence at a march in 1986.

A decision to allow an Orange parade in County Armagh, on 12 July 1986 brought Anglo-Irish relations to their lowest point, according to declassified files.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) initially decided that only a church parade on 6 July would be permitted to pass a nationalist area of Portadown.

However, after negotiations with Orange and unionist leaders, the RUC allowed a 12 July march along the Garvaghy Road.

Police refused a consultation request from the nationalist community.

The march was followed by loyalist attacks on Catholic homes in Rasharkin, County Antrim, and elsewhere.

In a confidential report on the Portadown decision for the Secretary of State, dated 17 July 1986, J E McConnell of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) felt that the only winner had been the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) leader, Ian Paisley "'who gained the kudos for having led 'successful negotiations with the RUC'''.

Worrying aspect

The most worrying aspect of the 12 July parade and its accompanying violence, he noted, was the inevitable increase in community tension across Northern Ireland and "the re-emergence of vicious sectarian attacks" in north Belfast, Rasharkin and south Down.

The police decision in Portadown provoked a strong statement from the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Peter Barry, on 15 July 1986 alleging that "members of the minority community had been left unprotected".

It was "intolerable that provocative demands by the unionist marchers had been listened to and that the nationalists had been denied equal treatment under the law".

The minister's statement, and a riposte by Tom King, supporting the RUC and seen as a rebuke to Dublin, had, in the words of the NIO official, "brought Anglo-Irish relations in general, and Barry-King relations in particular, to their lowest point" since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985.

Image caption Former NI Secretary of State Tom King, now Lord King of Bridgwater.

In the wake of the violence the British received a seven page analysis from the Irish, passed through the Maryfield secretariat on 16 July representing Mr Barry's position.

Its main points were that:

  • Expectations had been raised among Catholics that the 12 and 14 July marches would not be allowed through Catholic areas, especially in light of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
  • That police assurances that the march would not be allowed down Garvaghy Road had been "treacherously breached" ("the word current in Dublin", the official noted)
  • That the decision to allow the march ought to have been a purely policing one.

In a briefing note for the Secretary of State in the run-up to a special meeting of the Intergovernmental Council in London on 29 July, P N Bell of the NIO advised Mr King: "Our objective was and is to maintain the agreement intact through the marching season".

It was, therefore, desirable to avoid a major confrontation on 12 July.

Mr King should assert that the RUC's operational decisions, supported by him, "had been vindicated by events".

Low-key affair

The conference proved to be a low-key affair, attended by the British ministers, Mr King and Nicholas Scott, Peter Barry and a handful of officials.

According to a confidential minute in the file, Mr Barry began by saying that the two sides had not agreed on Portadown but should now put their differences behind them.

Mr King replied that if "the Irish intervened publicly to condemn decisions by the RUC, or pressed for a particular routing decision, then they risked provoking unionist opinion and aiding the DUP cause."

More on this story