‘Massive dose of inequality’ for nationalists in parades policy

Roles of Douglas Hurd and RUC chief constable in RUC decision to re-route controversial Orange parade in Portadown in 1985 revealed in confidential files

Loyalists taking part in the Orange Order protest rally against the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down, in 1986. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh / The Irish Times

Loyalists taking part in the Orange Order protest rally against the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down, in 1986. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh / The Irish Times

Fri, Aug 29, 2014, 01:00

The key roles of secretary of state Douglas Hurd and RUC chief constable Sir Jack Hermon in the RUC decision to re-route a controversial Orange parade in Portadown in 1985 is revealed in confidential files released today.

On March 7th, 1985, Paul Buxton, an official at the Northern Ireland Office, wrote to RUC assistant chief constable Michael McAtamney about the need “to temper the heat and emotion that is generated every year” during the Orange marching season.

This followed the IRA mortar-bombing of Newry RUC station which killed nine officers, an escalation that put great strain on the security forces.

Against this background, on March 11th, 1985, the head of the North’s civil service, Sir Ken Bloomfield, arranged for Bishop Robin Eames to provide a report on the parades issue. The bishop said “the connection between public parades and ‘community identity’ cannot be over-emphasised”.

As a means of de-escalating tensions during the marching season, Bishop Eames felt that a direct appeal should be made to the leaders of the Orange Order and other loyalist organisations by the secretary of state.

The upshot was a letter from Hurd to the leading Orangemen and unionist MPs, James Molyneaux and the Rev Martin Smyth. Hurd wrote: “I am frankly anxious and so is Jack Hermon at the risk to which police can sometimes be exposed in dealing with processions and parades which pass through or close to particularly difficult or sensitive areas.”

Flashpoints

While acknowledging the importance of parades in the unionist tradition, Hurd urged MPs to use their influence to ensure that “as far as possible, processions and parades avoid flashpoint and sensitive areas”.

The issue was taken up by Hermon in a conversation with a senior official, A W Stephens, on March 19th, 1985. According to the file, Hermon’s “instinct would be to encourage the secretary of state to challenge the Orange and Black leadership over the whole basis of traditional marches at the moral level, pointing out the sheer unreasonableness and injustice of their continuing to insist on going through or past the same areas as of yore, quite irrespective of whether the communities living in those areas had changed completely.”

“For the nationalists this was a massive dose of inequality,” the RUC chief said.

‘Scathing’

The issue continued to draw heat, and at a meeting with officials on March 22nd, 1985, Hurd was “scathing” about an RUC decision to re-route an “AOH” (Ancient Order of Hibernians) parade at Portadown due to a loyalist protest.

In a final note on the file, dated March 28th, 1985, Buxton noted that the chief constable shared Hurd’s view on the AOH parade: “He considered that the RUC’s refusal to let the [nationalists] march past loyalist demonstrators, carried a clear moral for the treatment of the loyalist march down Obins Street in Portadown in July, if not more widely.”

Subsequently the Twelfth of July Orange parade was re-routed away from the Catholic “Tunnel” area after years of tension. Unionists erroneously blamed “Dublin interference”, and widespread rioting followed.