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1 July 1999 Edition

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Garvaghy - A community under siege

In 1998, many residents of the Garvaghy Road area of Portadown kept a daily record of their experience of the impact on their own lives and that of their community of the Orange Order's protest at Drumcree. This week, a selection of their writings is to be published. ``Garvaghy: A community under siege'' tells the story of Drumcree 1998 in the words and emotions of those nationalists who were forced to endure it. Their personal testimonies bring sharply into focus the day-to-day reality of life on the Garvaghy Road. It's a story of collective courage and solidarity. A story of personal fears and tears.


``The nationalist community in Portadown has over recent years achieved international prominence because of its opposition to intrusive Orange Order marches on the Garvaghy Road. According to Orange Order mythology, what is at stake is `the right to walk the Queen's highway', a walk which `takes seven minutes'... This book shows that the Orange Order remains one of the central pillars of institutionalised sectarianism in the North of Ireland. It is not the `right to march' that is being asserted, or a simple `celebration of culture', as the Order maintains. Marching through Catholic areas against the wishes of local residents is about flaunting the symbols of Protestant supremacy and the culture of unionist domination.''


``We had gathered in the Drumcree Centre, Coalition and residents alike, smoking, chatting and drinking tea in anticipation of the arrival of the Parades Commission's hand delivered envelope. The North of Ireland was holding its breath, all waiting for the decision, but no one more than us, because we eat, sleep and breathe the road every day of the year....I didn't see the man enter. Then my name was called. I was ushered into a room and watched as two large brown envelopes were produced. Every eye in the room was on them... The envelopes were opened and we crowded around... The agonising search for the decision bore fruit on the back pages. What a relief, they had been re-routed.''

``Today (Monday June 29) the Parades Commission made it's decision on the Drumcree parade. I was unable to hear the radio from where I was. so at 11 o'clock I asked Maurice had he heard the decision. He told me the parade's homeward leg was re routed. Even though I am against the Orange march, which I feel is sectarian and triumphalist, my heart skipped a beat and my blood ran cold. I know the Portadown Orange will not agree to re route in a peaceful way.''

``The Coalition had rented a room at the centre, we had installed everything we needed, a desk, telephones, filing system, computer, and if two or more people were to enter the room, it was full. We had international observers from America, Canada, South Africa, England and nationalists from North and South were all due to arrive on Friday and Saturday. They all had to be placed in homes before the big day, Sunday.''

``Almost everyone in work has stopped talking to me. If this is how they behave and it is still days to go before the parade, what will it be like later? Three girls, two of whom I always sit with at lunch, changed their lunch time without telling me, so I was left sitting in the canteen on my own. It feels awful.....Maybe it's best if I just keep my head down and not say too much. They might leave me alone. A couple of guys in work said they will walk the Garvaghy Road. I said you probably will. I walked away from them thinking, `I hope you don't, you Orange bigots'... I am the only Catholic in my section, so I am alone.''

``Resident's meeting in St Mary's Hall tonight (Friday July 3). Rosemary Nelson said at last the law is on our side. Breandan Mac Cionnaith reminded everyone that the community had agreed there would be no drink or trouble towards the police or army. Everyone clapped and cheered. We are a community united, not a puppet of Sinn Fein, as we are so often portrayed. We are now surrounded by a ring of steel.''

``Saturday night (July 4) was very tense and the centre was full to overflowing. People had organised themselves into different groups. Some were making tea and sandwiches, others putting their names forward to steward the area. Mobile phones and walkie-talkies had been obtained and were being carried by people, so as to relay messages from Obins Street and different parts of the Garvaghy Road. Nothing was left to chance. We wouldn't be caught out like `97.''

Sunday morning (July 5), ``we stood, residents, international observers, nationalists from North and South, together, behind rolls of barbed wire, while dark suited, sash wearing men walked past us by the thousand. It all brought back unhappy memories of July 1997. I connect Orangemen with pain, blood, anger, frustration and a feeling of hopelessness. I hoped and prayed that they would hand in a letter of protest and go home. But watching their followers shouting abuse. I knew it wouldn't happen.''

``The Orange Order went to church. I watched them from my bedroom window and prayed that they would walk home again the same way. But I don't hold out much hope. The Orangemen came from their service, walked up to the police, were refused entrance and the stand off begins. We are under siege....The field behind our house is unprotected...I have just stood in my back garden as a huge crowd of Orangemen and their supporters have gone up to join those already at Drumcree. It is dark, but I have all the house lights out. I'm terrified, if they make a break for it they will be right in my back garden. I am alone with the boys...I can't take much more of this. I can't sleep, can't eat, I feel like I am going to have a nervous breakdown.''

``It was decided that the phones had to be `manned' day and night, so my turn came on Monday (July 6) midnight to 7am ...At 6.45am a man entered the office to report that the Project Children group, due to fly to America that day couldn't get to their minibus as Orangemen had decided to block the road...Gerald Cusack got three children into his car and an international observer and two other men did likewise.....we drove at speed through the Orangemen whom the police were gently pushing back. The children in the car never uttered a word. Through all the ups and downs I experienced during the days of Drumcree, one memory will stick with me of a wee girl being sick out an open window, crying, looking to go home as we sped down the motor way on the start of what should have been a holiday of a lifetime.''

``Tonight (July 9) 15,000 Orangemen and their supporters have gathered at Drumcree. Are the police mad to let this number gather? They are now firing blast bombs and petrol bombs, and ball bearings from high powered catapults at the police. The huge bangs and flashes are fireworks. I can hear them and see them light up the sky. The police have started to fire baton rounds at them. The back of my house is still unprotected. I'm terrified. The boys and I sit in the dark, afraid to turn on the lights in case we bring attention to the house.. God forgive me, but if they come with petrol bombs to burn my house or hurt my kids, I'll shoot them.''

``The Orange Order have applied for a new march tomorrow (Saturday July 11) which comes from Drumcree church, down the Garvaghy Road. The Parades Commission are staying up all night to decide if they will allow this march. I don't understand why they are even going to consider this new application. It's the same march. The Orange haven't given 28 days notice and they are still sitting up there at Drumcree breaking the law. The area is very fearful.. Have we suffered six days of hell for nothing?.. I hate them. I hate them. I hate them for making me hide in my home in the dark, too afraid to turn the lights on. I hate them for making my children hide in the dark. I hate them for calling us monsters and not human beings. I hate them for making me hate them.''

``I wake up to the terrible news, that three wee boys, Jason, Mark and Richard Quinn, aged 10, 9 and 7, all brothers, have been burned to death in their homes in Ballymoney. The police have said it was a `purely sectarian attack'. Madmen have come in the middle of the night and with their hearts filled with hate and their eyes blinded by evil, they threw a petrol bomb and murdered three innocent children...I can't get those children out of my mind. My son Andrew is sitting clutching his Barney Bear. He has packed his toy computer into his bag and has left it beside the front door. I haven't let him know about those wee boys. I ask him why? he said if the Orangemen come mummy, I have Barney and I will run away. He is only ten. One of those wee boys was ten. I go into the bathroom, sit in the corner and cry quietly so he can't hear me.''

``Garvaghy: A community under siege'' is published by Beyond the Pale at £8.99.


Tensions high after Garvaghy march ban

Tension throughout the Six Counties has risen following the 29 June Parades Commission ruling banning Orangemen from marching down the nationalist Garvaghy Road next Sunday, 4 July.

Almost immediately, the Orange Volunteers and Red Hand Defenders issued a joint statement warning of attacks on those involved in the ``sell out''. According to the loyalists groups' statements, their units were being ``put on standby from midnight''. Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly has urged nationalists to be calm in the face of these threats from the Red Hand Defenders and Orange Volunteers. He said: ``Given that these groups have been responsible for scores of attacks on Catholics, including deaths, I would urge vigilance and calm at this difficult and dangerous time.'' In the early hours of Tuesday morning, loyalists attacked a Catholic woman and her young son in Finaghy in South Belfast, pushing a pipe bomb through the letter box of her door.

Within hours of the commission ruling, up to 1,000 Orangemen attempted to march down the Garvaghy Road. Denis Watson, County Grand Master of Armagh, announced that the County Armagh Lodge would be at Drumcree for 12 July instead of Killlylea in a direct response to the Parades Commission's ruling. ``We are going into dark days once again and I would appeal to ensure that there is unity within this institution and that we stand together until our rights are restored,'' he said, in a statement that can only confirm the fear that another lengthy standoff at Drumcree is imminent.

Sinn Féin Assembly member Dara O'Hagan, welcoming the Parade Commission's ruling said: ``In the context of a twelve-month siege and of massive intimidation and sectarian harassment by the Orange Order and its supporters, it is the correct and only decision that could have been made. Direct dialogue is the only way to resolve this issue.'' However, Portadown District Master Harold Gracey has stated that ``under no circumstances'' would he engage in dialogue with residents' spokesperson Breandán Mac Cionnaith again, demonstrating the Orange Order's continuing refusal to resolve the parades issue.

The Parades Commission ruling came at a time of increasing unease among nationalists, fearful that the Orange Order was intent on raising the temperature if the Drumcree ruling went against the Portadown Orangemen.

On Saturday 26 June, it was revealed that the Orange Order has applied for a further 1,300 parades in the next six weeks. A Parades Commission spokesperson confirmed that the Orange Order had indeed applied for the extra 1,300 parades throughout the North and that the commission was ``working its way through them''.

An Orange Order spokesperson attempted to justify the parades by saying they were ``an expression of Orange culture'', but nationalists see the extra parades as an obvious attempt to further inflame an already tense situation. Now, nationalist communities throughout the North are bracing themselves for a summer of conflict, especially those communities targeted by the Orange Order in literature they published at an ``evening of culture'' in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast in March, areas such as Bellaghy, Dunloy, Newtownbutler, and Roslea, predominantly nationalist towns which have opposed Orange parades in the past.

Orange Parades pass through nationalist areas

Nationalist areas in the Six Counties were unenthusiastic witnesses to a number of Orange Parades last weekend, marches which went ahead largely due to the RUC's saturation of nationalist areas.

In the Springfield Road in West Belfast on 26 June, an Orange march passed off without incident. At a peaceful protest staged by nationalists, hemmed in behind a large RUC blockade, Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition spokesperson Breandán Mac Cionnaith called on nationalists to stand together in a show of strength on the parades issue.

He said: ``It should no longer be left to the local communities to defend their rights - we need a Six-County organisation to stand up to the Orange Order.'' Springfield Road Residents' spokesperson John McGivern described the march as ``a total insult'' to the residents of the area and repeated the call for nationalists to stand together against the Orange Order.

Meanwhile, a contentious Orange parade also passed through the County Tyrone village of Mountfield. Residents' spokesperson for the area Barney McAleer described the Orange march through the 100% nationalist village on 27 June as nothing more than ``an Orange coat-trailing exercise which had little to do with religion''. He further stated that nationalist residents had tried to accommodate the Orange Order but had been met by an adamant refusal to engage in dialogue.


London hears of Garvaghy misery


Don Mercer from the Garvaghy Road Residents' Coalition received a standing ovation when he addressed a crowded public meeting in the Grand Committee Room in Westminster on Wednesday 23 June.

The meeting had been organised by the London Friends of Garvaghy Road to call for support for the residents of the Garvaghy Road in the run up to this weekend's proposed march by the Orange Order, a march which the Order is insisting will go ahead, despite the ban by the Parades Commission earlier this week. The group urged Members of Parliament to visit the area

over the coming week in order to better understand the atmosphere of intimidation which pervades Portadown.

Sinn Fein's Dara O'Hagan was also on the platform and demanded that nationalist residents receive proper protection under the law, something which at present manifestly does not happen. MPs John McDonald, Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Benn, academic and human rights campaigner Robbie McVeigh and Paul May from the Robert Hamill Campaign also took part in the debate.

Don Mercer said: ``The people of the Garvaghy Road are actually under siege; not the Orange Order. The Orange Order has been free to go to Drumcree church and back into Portadown town centre with no interference from the RUC or the British Army. So to say that they are under siege is a nonsense.''

Of the murder of Rosemary Nelson, he told the audience that ``it was a tremendous blow to the people of the Garvaghy Road because Rosemary was the voice of our people, she was our only voice; she was our legal representative, she advised us on how to go about discussions with people - government officials and so on - and once she was murdered our people fell apart for a while. But it's a strong community and they will survive it.''

He also spoke about the mounting toll of violence inflicted on Catholic residents who venture into the town. ``A guy called Tony Millsap, 22 years of age, coming from St Patrick's, went into a chip shop in Portadown town centre. Four Loyalists walked in and buried a car jack in his skull. He is still living, if you can call it living. He's blind, he can't hear and he needs 24-hour-a-day care. This is the reality of life in Portadown if you are a Catholic. It is a Protestant town for a Protestant people.''

He referred to the murder of Elizabeth O'Neill, murdered by loyalists because she had married into a Catholic family, saying: ``I was bought up as a Catholic but my father was a Protestant who married a Catholic, my grandfather was a Protestant who married a Catholic.'' But growing up in his community, he said, ``it was unheard of that anyone in a `mixed' marriage would be threatened or forced to leave their home. But that wasn't the case in Protestant areas.

``What we need is people like yourselves, especially British MPs, to make the effort to come to the Garvaghy Road on 4 July to witness for themselves. We have nothing to hide. And what I would say is this; when you do come, feel free to talk to both communities because we want you to do that. But I'll just remind you that 100% of the people on the Garvaghy Road voted yes to the Good Friday Agreement; the people standing on Drumcree Hill were 100% against the Agreement.''


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