Tag Archives: Drumcree

The Good Friday Agreement Twenty-five years on: The Summer of 1998 and the Long Road to Peace

Travelers were officials working in Anglo-Irish Division who would weekly travel north to meet contacts, learn what was going on, report back and feed into intergovernmental discussions. Memory jog seeing my NI reports surface in the released state papers.[1] The parades issue was my beat as a traveler.  It pitched NI into new levels of heightened social tensions with dire potential.

Flashpoints combusted when Orange Lodges insisted on marching through nationalist areas. Places like the Lower Ormeau Road in south Belfast and the small village of Dunloy in the heart of Orange country in Antrim.  Drumcree in Armagh, the birthplace of Orangism, emerged as the leading battle of wills. 

Portadown Orange Lodge No. 1 held a traditional church service at Drumcree on the Sunday before the Twelfth of July, the annual celebration of King William of Orange’s victory over King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1691.  The traditional route took them along the Garvaghy Road, a nationalist housing estate on the edge of the predominantly loyalist Portadown. For the Twelfth, Portadown centre would be festooned with red, white and blue bunting, curb stones similarly painted, and triumphal arches erected across the street depicting King Billy astride a white horse.

Why now, with the ceasefires in place? As my contact and friend Brendan McAllister of Mediation Northern Ireland explained to me, the parades issue emerged after the paramilitary ceasefires as the new vehicle for the cross-community divisions that lay at the heart of the conflict.  The struggle between the paramilitaries and the security forces had acted as a default, a kind of lethal Punch and Judy show between ‘professionals’ on both sides, paramilitaries and the security forces.[2] 

The Orange Lodges insisted that they had the right to march ‘the Queen’s highways.’  Resident groups resisted this, saying they should not be locked in their homes with the security forces aiding a sectarian and triumphal demonstration. Each side saw in this a contest about their place in society, their rights, and the esteem of their identity.

The British Government appointed the North Commission to review parades and marches.  It reported that “The dispute in the summer of 1996 between the Loyal Orders and Nationalist residents groups, which required major intervention by the police under the public order legislation, brought Northern Ireland close to anarchy.”[3] Since the issue was on my desk, I drafted the Government’s response to the North Review.  It appeared from my research that while the right to assembly was a well-established one in many jurisdictions, there was no right to decide the route to that assembly.  Our submission argued that each parade dispute be subjected to arbitration based on the rule of law to adjudicate between those who insisted on marching and those who resisted such marches. The Director General, Sean Ó hUigínn, reviewed, honed and approved the draft. We traveled to meet the North Review to discuss the submission, Sean leading the delegation and responding to their questions with his eloquence and deep intellect. He left satisfied with the outcome. The North Review recommended the establishment of a Parades Commission operating under a new Public Processions (NI) Act 1998.[4] 

Tensions spilled over again in July 1997 as the Garvaghy Residents were cleared off their streets by the RUC on the night before the Orange parade. Riots broke out across the North.  The Minister, Ray Burke, called me to his office and instructed me to meet the residents. From the rise above Newry town, an eerie sight of plumes of black smoke rose across the North.

With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, the Drumcree march in July became a test case.  The newly established Parades Commission had ruled against the parade going via the Garvaghy Road. Loyalists and Orangemen gathered outside the church at Drumcree.  Nationalist supporters flooded into the Garvaghy Road.  The British Army dug a ditch and put up barbed wire in between both groups. There was something primal about the carnival of menace, jeering, fireworks and hatred from Drumcree hill. Everything seemed to be on the line: rights, law and order, the authority of the Parades Commission, the future.

In an attempt to head off the confrontation, ‘proximity talks’ were convened.  The Orange Order refused to meet directly with the Garvaghy Residents, seeing in this an admission that the Residents had a say in public order.  I was with them as the Government’s representative.  Their legal advisor was Rosemary Nelson from nearby Lurgan. I knew Rosemary from previous cases that we had raised through the Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Conference.  We talked a lot about the North in the longueurs of the proximity talks, about the tensions of living there, of the relief she felt whenever she crossed the border south. There wasn’t much for me to do but observe, check with contacts, make sure no untoward or unacceptable initiatives made matters worse, and keep Dublin closely informed. Under the leadership of the new DG of Anglo-Irish, Dermot Gallagher, senior officials in Dublin, Belfast and London were actively engaged and monitoring developments, advising the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern as developments unfolded. I’m sure the lines between Ahern and Blair were busy. Up north, as a mediator trusted by all sides including leading churchmen on both sides, Brendan McAllister was trying his best to cajole a solution. My opposite number was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff.  Jonathan too tried his best to negotiate a solution as he shuttled between Portadown Orange Lodge No 1 and the Garvaghy Road Residents. 

Then a horrific incident changed the atmosphere. Jason, Mark and Richard Quinn, three young boys, died in a UVF firebomb attack on their home in Ballymoney on July 12th. Widespread condemnation was immediate, including from some very courageous Protestant clergymen who spoke out from the pulpits.  A new consensus coalesced, enough was enough. Tensions eased, the Parades Commission’s decision was upheld. Garvaghy Road did not see an Orange Parade.

The Good Friday Agreement faced another dreadful test a month later.  On August 15th the Real IRA exploded a bomb in Omagh, killing 29 and including more than 200.  It was the worst incident of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, surpassed in lethality only by the Dublin Monaghan bombings in 1974 that killed 33 and injured more than 300. The consensus hardened that such murderous violence had to be consigned to the past, that the GFA was the future. 

In that summer of 1998, it was as if the Agreement, the shield of good intentions and high ambitions, made of words and ink, blessed by the people’s endorsement North and South, was being tested by the swords and dragons of Northern Ireland.  

Though Northern Ireland’s swordsmen and dragons died hard, the shield stood.  There would be other killings, for sure. In March 1999, Rosemary Nelson was killed when a bomb exploded under her car.  It was claimed by a loyalist group.  Yet peace had the upper hand and the inclination to use of violence ebbed.  Even the means to carry it out were tackled, led by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.  Canada’s General John de Chastelain played a key role in this along with its other members.  I had never been sure that decommissioning had been feasible.  In the wake of the GFA, a republican contact in Derry had thrown a live round across a table at me, said take it to Dublin and “tell them that’s the only f—king decommissioning they’re going to see.” It was a stubborn issue that took years to unlock but that too was achieved. As the new policing represented by the PSNI took hold, the prize of decommissioning all paramilitary weapons was finally won. The monopoly on the use of violence was returned to the state.

Twenty-five years on, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement reminds us of what we left behind: killing and hatred, a decent future frustrated by the claims of the past. Finding peace in Northern Ireland had been a long road: the Sunningdale Agreement 1973-74, the Haughey-Thatcher summits in the early 1980s, the Anglo-Irish Agreement 1985, the Hume-Adams talks, the paramilitary ceases fires in 1994 and 1997, the GFA in 1998 and the twenty-nine subsequent agreements to implement it.  Through infinite hours of talks, meetings and negotiations, peace came dropping slow.

Great leaders emerged who took courageous decisions: Hume, Mallon, Haughey, Thatcher, FitzGerald, Spring, Major, Reynolds, Adams, McGuinness, Trimble, Robinson, Bruton, McAleese, Paisely (eventually) and Blair.  Countless others included the women of the Peace Movement like Mairead Corrigan and later leaders of the Women’s Coalition like Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar.  People working in NGOs and community groups at interfaces, risking vilification and physical violence to inch forward toleration.

Now the black swan of Brexit calls again for leadership of a very high order, provided on the Irish side by a new political generation. Like generations of peace makers of all kinds, as officials we were sustained by a ‘duty of hope’, committed to the process, always working toward a better future.  Here’s to more progress in 2023.



1 January 2023

[1] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/pithy-and-precise-the-post-it-notes-from-bruton-s-era-1.4765531

[2] Security forces as a term covers many organizations, including RUC, its Special Branch which was regarded as a force within a force, the British Army and a host of covert intelligence agencies, including MI5 and the British Army’s Force Research Unit.

[3] https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/issues/parade/docs/north97sum.pdf

[4] http://www.paradescommission.org/


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Death of a Peace Maker and Friend: Brendan McAllister RIP

As we approach the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, there is naturally a focus on the negotiations of that historic agreement and its implementation.  That is right and proper.  However, peace in Northern Ireland was the achievement of courageous people who reached across the sectarian divide in myriad gestures of reconciliation.  Peacemakers worked for years, decades even, through the haze of violence, riots and blood, reaching for a better future, for the better part of our natures, for peace.

One of those people was Brendan McAllister.  He died unexpectedly, suddenly, too young, this week.  His name will not be familiar to most.  To those who knew him, and loved him, his name is in our hearts.

Brendan worked with Mediation Northern Ireland in the years before and after the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994.  Alex Attwood, member of the SDLP and a former Assembly member and Minister, was one of his closest friends.  Reflecting on Brendan’s life and work, Alex said Brendan went to the hardest places.  There were no harder places in mid-1990s than the confrontations between the Loyal Orders and nationalist residents.

In 1996, parades in contentious areas like the Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast and the Garvaghy Road in Portadown exposed sectarian emotions at their rawest.  Peace in Northern Ireland felt like it was on the line.  As a mediator, Brendan went there armed with his humanism, his abiding Christianity, his determination to make Northern Ireland a better place, a place where people weren’t murdered for their beliefs. Brendan explained the parades issue.  Before the ceasefires, the Northern Ireland conflict was fought between ‘professionals’ on both sides: the PIRA versus the security forces.  In a way, they were the Punch and Judy show, avatars and mediums of the deeper divisions within society. 

Brendan worked hard as a mediator to win trust on all sides, to bridge the sectarian divide, to find common humanity.  Drumcree emerged as the titular confrontation of the parades issue. As a traveller with Anglo-Irish Division, we found each other in the no-man’s land between the Garvaghy residents and the Orange Order.  He was working to mediate, to connect the key stakeholders and find an agreed solution.  Jonathan Powell, PM Tony Blair’s chief of staff, was lead for the British Government.  I was point for the Irish Government. Daily, I would talk to Brendan, analyze, assess, and report back to Dublin. 

The annual Drumcree crisis washed over us, nationalist residents beaten off their own road by the RUC in daylight in 1996.  Then beaten off their own road again at night by the RUC in 1997.  Still Brendan worked to connect, and not just in Portadown about across innumerable interfaces in Northern Ireland, firefighting for peace, for that better future.

The Good Friday Agreement changed the equation.  Lines were held in 1998.  Courageous people spoke for toleration.  As the Parades Commission adjudicated each confrontation, the energy drained slowly from the parades issue. Again Brendan was at the coalface, injecting into the arbitration the philosophy and practice of mediation, reason, and compromise.

Brendan was also truly influential on the policing project.  His experience of the parade confrontations the critical role of policing in avoiding escalation and calm tensions.  Security sector reform is one of the most difficult challenges of any peace process.  In Northern Ireland, it was not only critical but successful.  Thanks to his input and influence before the Patten Commission and during the implementation of its recommendations, policing change in Northern Ireland was profound and successful.  It remains an enduring success of the peace process precisely because it is no longer on the radar screen. 

Years later, Brendan served as a Victims Commissioner and the Department of Foreign Affairs nominated Brendan for the UN’s panel of standby mediators.  I am sure that his wisdom, compassion and experience of conflict were invaluable in the places where he worked. 

I met Brendan and his wonderful wife Elizabeth a few years ago at a dinner hosted by the Irish Joint Secretary in Belfast.  It was a wonderful evening, a joy to spend time with Brendan and other old contacts.  When we parted, we hugged.  Brendan was a hugger.  And a smiler too with a ready infectious laugh that said ‘sure what’s it all about?’  By then the shadow on Brexit had fallen over the North.  There would be more work for Brendan, endless work of reconciliation.  Reflective as ever, his thoughts turned back to his faith and earlier this year he was ordained a Deacon.  When Brendan died last Tuesday, Northern Ireland lost a true friend and a gentle guide on its journey to a better future.

Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland to Canada

Ottawa, 14 December 2022


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