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3 June 1999 Edition

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They say it only takes 15 minutes

By Peadar Whelan

For Sinéad, it all started at 6.30am on Saturday morning, 29 May.

The RUC and the loyalists where outside her Garvaghy Road home. The loyalists were removing tricolours from the lamp posts and an RUC officer was holding the ladder. When Sinead protested, another RUC man shoved her back into the house, regardless of the fact that she had her small daughter in her arms. The scene had been set for the rest of the day.

Heavily armed RUC and British army units, including paratroops, surrounded the Garvaghy Road. There could have been 1,000 of them; it was hard to make an accurate assessment and they were backed up by dozens of armoured vehicles. They were at both ends of Garvaghy Road, they were all along Park Road which links Garvaghy and Obins Street. They were at Obins Street, at the Tunnel and at Craigwell Avenue.

The tension was palpable as everyone waited in anticipation of the return of the Junior Orange Order from Bangor, where they were parading that afternoon. Last year, serious rioting erupted after the same parade tried to push its way up the Garvaghy Road. Seizing the opportunity, the RUC had attacked nationalist residents. None on the Road wanted that to happen again.

At the community centre, women gathered to make posters and paint banners calling for justice for their community and peace for their children. The women were planning to be at the front, to act as a buffer between the crown forces and nationalist protesters.

As the afternoon drew to a close, the word came through that the Orange marchers had arrived at Shillington's Bridge, at the bottom of the road.

Tension rose as it became obvious that the loyalists had not dispersed peacefully. Later we would learn loyalists accompanying the Orange march had engaged in a running battle with the crown forces attempting to disperse them.

Blaming ``lager louts'' outside the stewardship of the parade, Orange Order spokesperson David Jones said the troublemakers had been identified and ``would not be made welcome at any future events''.

As the evening sun stretched across Garvaghy Road, when it was clear the Orange Order had dispersed, Breandán MacCionnaith, as spokesperson for the residents, asked the RUC to withdraw from the area.

The RUC, however, intent it seems on provocation, stayed their ground; lined across the road and in the park from where they flanked the couple of hundred nationalists who gathered in protest - all the while their guns trained on the residents.

Observers from Fianna Fáil, Labour and Sinn Féin who attended the Garvaghy Road on fact-finding missions all commented that the thing they first noticed was that the guns and armoured vehicles all addressed the nationalists: ``The message was clear; nationalists are the enemy'', said Mike McKee, a Shannon town councillor.

It was inevitable that the longer the RUC held their positions the more likely it was that there would be trouble.

And when the stone throwing started, the RUC almost immediately opened fire with plastic bullets. Over 30 were fired before the first of three or four petrol bombs were thrown. About 50 plastic bullets were fired in all, injuring two men, one hit on the body the other in the throat.

By contrast, during three days of intensive rioting in the loyalist Edgarstown area two weeks ago, when petrol bombs were used and an RUC vehicle was overturned, only one plastic bullet was fired.

By approximately 9pm, the area was relatively calm, the RUC had withdrawn and groups of people stood about chatting about a long day and the impact on their lives of a loyalist march that would, ``only take 15 minutes''.
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