The determination of the Orange Order to march down Garvaghy Road in Drumcree near Portadown, and the equal determination of people living there to stop them, provoked a serious spat between the taoiseach and the British prime minister in July 1996.
During a heated phone call, John Major threatened to end the conversation when John Bruton questioned whether the UK government was in charge of the situation around the Co Armagh town.
The context of the phone call was that on July 6th, RUC chief constable Hugh Annesley announced that Orangemen attending a service the next day at the local Church of Ireland church would not be permitted to leave the area by marching down the road, which was populated almost entirely by Catholic nationalists.
After the service on July 7th, the Orangemen, as they had been told, were blocked from going down the road and a stand-off ensued.
Over the following days numbers swelled to 10,000 people, many of them loyalist paramilitaries. As loyalists vented their anger, there was rioting around the area of the blockade and elsewhere in Northern Ireland.
The RUC said that over four days, there were 758 attacks on them, resulting in 50 of their members being injured. Some 662 plastic bullets were fired in rioting, during which 90 civilians were injured. On July 7th, a Catholic taxi driver in Lurgan was murdered by loyalists.
Just before noon on July 11th, and with the prospect of up to 50,000 people massing to force their way down the road, Annesley reversed his decision.
As a result, 1,200 Orangeman walked through the area in triumph, to the dismay of local nationalist residents, who were not consulted about the decision.
Nationalists there and elsewhere reacted by rioting.
The Irish government was furious, as evident from the opening salvo from Bruton when he spoke to Major by phone on the evening after Annesley’s noon decision, referencing in the first instance John Holmes, Major’s private secretary.
“John Holmes indicated to me that you would be available to take a call from me at 8 o’clock,” Bruton began. “I have been sitting here in the office for two hours. I am glad that you have eventually taken the call but I would have thought that you mightn’t have let me know that you would be available to take the call if you weren’t.”
Major replied: “I wasn’t aware that you wanted a call at 8 o’clock, John. I have...”
“John Holmes told me that specifically,” he said.
“I have been at a series of meetings,” Major continued, “and not least dealing with the problems of Northern Ireland and what is now happening in various parts of Northern Ireland all evening.”
“Yes, yes,” said Bruton. “Well I have been sitting here watching the television and watching the results of the decision that was taken by the chief constable this morning, which is very, very serious I have to tell you. I think it is showing force winning the day, and one of the things I have spent my time working with you was to demonstrate that there was another way forward apart from force.”
Bruton went on to assert that efforts at negotiating a resolution to the stand-off had been “just swept aside” by Annesley’s decision.
Major countered by saying that matters “were a bit more complex than that”.
The Garvaghy Road residents spokesman, Brendan McKenna, also known as Breandán Mac Cionnaith, had been convicted and jailed for six years in the early 1980s for his role in an IRA bombing in Portadown and as a result, Orangemen refused to talk to him.
“He served his sentence,” said Bruton.
“Nobody is going to talk to him,” Major replied.
“David Ervine was a terrorist too,” said Bruton, referring to the loyalist politician then engaged in multi-party talks taking place in Belfast.
Major went on to defend Annesley, saying the decision to let the marchers down the road was the chief constable’s alone but one that the prime minister understood.
Burton likened the climbdown to 1974, when the British gave in to loyalist threats, thereby collapsing the Sunningdale executive, the first cross-community powersharing government in Northern Ireland. Major said he didn’t want to squabble with him.
“I don’t believe that the British army is unable and the British forces are unable to protect people to that degree,” said the taoiseach. “It seems to me that starting off on the course of saying that you are going to block the road and then when the numbers get too large backing off does not convey a sense of resolution or a sense that your government is in charge.”
This clearly irritated Major.
“I resent that, John,” he snapped, “and if you are going to continue the conversation in that fashion you can continue it alone, because I am not going to.”
“No,” said Bruton as Major steered the conversation into the operational independence of the police and army, faced with an immediate situation on the ground.
Bruton said decisions of this nature were political.
“They are the essence of politics, in my view,” said Bruton.
“John,” said Major, “would you have instructed the Garda what to do?”
“Yes, if necessary,” said the Taoiseach, “Yes, not in terms of individual prosecutions or that sort of thing ...”
“No, no,” interrupted Major, “in terms of control of a street problem.”
“Yes, I would accept responsibility that at the end of the day the first responsibility of government is to maintain order and if you ...”
“That is not what I asked,” countered Major. “What I asked was whether you would actually instruct the Garda when they are actively in control of a street problem as to what to do and instruct them to act against their professional advice and against the advice of the army.”
“This was not a decision that was taken in a split second,” said Bruton. “This was a decision that was predictable over several days ...”
The argument flowed back and forth – Bruton charging that force had won out and the decision was essentially political; Major suggesting it was not but that the police had, in effect, no choice.
“We can’t undo it now that its been taken,” said Bruton, “and I suppose we have just got to try and learn what we can from it.”
Major said: “I have no doubt that Sinn Féin and the IRA are rubbing their hands in glee at the outcome.”
“Absolutely,” replied Bruton. “That’s right. That’s why I am beside myself ... and that’s precisely why I am so deeply troubled by all of this because it is a victory in practice for the IRA. It is a victory for all the things you and I have stood against.” (File: 2021/98/10)