The unionist MP John Taylor, now Lord Kilcooney, made a chilling prediction to a senior Irish diplomat in 1998 that if the Orange march to Drumcree in Portadown was not allowed through, Garvaghy Road would not exist by the day of the parade.
So taken back by the remarks was Irish counsellor in London Philip McDonagh, he rang another person who heard the conversation to vouch for its accuracy, newly released state papers show.
Mr Taylor’s remarks at a party at Mr McDonagh’s London home on July 9th 1988 caused concerns at the highest levels of government amid heightened tensions about an explosion of communal violence.
The following day taoiseach Bertie Ahern raised the remarks in a telephone conversation with British prime minister Tony Blair, expressing concern about the level of violence that might occur just months after the signing of the Belfast Agreement.
Mr Ahern said: “You probably got the information Tony that John Taylor has been going around openly predicting that if they don’t get down by Monday that Garvaghy Road will cease to exist to use his words. That’s tremendously unhelpful to you and me, but even more unhelpful to his own leader. So that’s another one we have to watch in this bloody equation.”
In a confidential memo about the party, Mr McDonagh said Mr Taylor was one of a number of guests who included diplomats, politicians, and senior civil servants.
“On arrival, he remarked that ‘if the march doesn’t go through, the Garvaghy Road won’t exist after Monday [July 13th]’. Taylor commented favourably on the decisions taken in 1996 and 1997, and said that the overall situation in Northern Ireland reminds him of 1974.”
The reference to 1974 is to the widespread strikes held by loyalists that collapsed the first attempt at powersharing in Northern Ireland.
Mr McDonagh wrote: “I have consulted this morning with another of our guests, the Venerable George Cassidy, the Anglican Archdeacon of London . . . Cassidy and his wife witnessed my conversation with Taylor and continued to talk to him . . . Cassidy confirms that the above remark was made and tells me that Taylor further suggested that ‘thousands of people will be without a home’ if the march fails to go through by Monday.
“Cassidy believes that the one possible interpretation of Taylor’s remarks is that an attempt will be made to burn down the Catholic housing estates on the Garvaghy Road. Cassidy, who is horrified by Taylor’s comments, noted that Taylor spoke in a premeditated way and seemed to have prepared his phrases in advance. Taylor did not wait for Drumcree to arise naturally in conversation. Cassidy’s conclusion, therefore, is that Taylor intended his warning to me to be reported.”
Patrick Mayhew was also at the party. The former Northern secretary tried to persuade Mr Taylor that the security situation was now different. The march had been let through in 1996 because the general officer commanding the scene told Mr Mayhew the “the line at the Garvaghy Road could only be held by the use of live ammunition”.
Asked about his reported remarks this week, Mr Taylor told The Irish Times he had no recollection of any such discussion.
Another memo notes the SDLP’s Bríd Rogers had gone to Portadown on the night before the march and had seen 20,000 Orangemen mass there. She told an Irish diplomat, Eamon McKee, that the “tough element” among the crowd could only operate with impunity because of the massed ranks of Orangemen.
“She felt that decent moderate elements within the Orange Order and the Protestant community generally must be challenged to face their responsibility and call for restraint.”
On July 12th, loyalists firebombed a house in Ballymoney, Co Antrim, killing the three Quinn brothers, Jason, Mark and Richard, aged between 9 and 11. The atrocity had a significant impact on public opinion in Northern Ireland and had the effect of diffusing the tension in Portadown.