Drumcree confrontation: A harsh choice between two evils

Bitterness and hurt as Chief Constable allows Loyalists to march: David McKittrick recounts 12 traumatic hours on the Garvaghy Road
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The Independent Online
12.20am: Soldiers move in around Drumcree church, causing both Protestants and Catholics to assume the Orange march is to be stopped. A witness sympathetic to Catholic residents says: "We stood and watched them seal it off with barbed wire, dragons' teeth, sparks flying from welding. We said, God, they're not letting them through and we all went home."

3.30am: Residents are taken by surprise as scores of armoured vehicles and hundreds of troops and police suddenly saturate the Garvaghy Road in the darkness. They accuse the Royal Ulster Constabulary of manhandling sit-down protesters; police say they were attacked with petrol-bombs and stones.

5.30am: Police systematically deal with around 100 protesters, carrying them away or pushing them back with riot shields. Daylight shows the police wearing new flame-resistant overalls, boots and balaclavas, and shin, thigh and arm protectors.

Groups of 20 police respond in practised unison to commands shouted by inspectors. Some missiles are thrown at them; in one of many angry incidents a man with dried blood on his head goes up to the police line and shouts, "Come on, use the oul baton, come on."

6.40am: By this time police have lined the Garvaghy Road with approximately 75 armoured Land-Rovers. At the Churchill Park housing estate flashpoint a second cordon of police and troops has been established 70 yards into the Catholic estate, so the mass of Catholic residents is not within a stone's throw of where the parade will pass.

7.40am: The Army, using large troop-carriers and several hundred men, has established two more cordons within the estate. Small entries leading to the Garvaghy Road are each manned by a dozen soldiers. By this stage the mood of Catholic residents is one of angry resignation: with the estate saturated movement is difficult and access to the Garvaghy Road all but impossible. Some go off to bed as the tension eases.

8.10am: The forward cordon of Land Rovers and police remains on alert but the main contingent, lining the Garvaghy Road, relaxes. Some drink Lucozade, one takes off his shoes, a few warm food on small gas cookers; others take off their flak jackets and sleep. Small change which has fallen from the pockets of those carried away by police lies on the road; no one picks it up.

9.30am: Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan defends his decision to allow the marching to go ahead: "The choice I was left with was a simple, stark choice in terms of balancing two evils."

10am: Since residents cannot reach their church at the top of the Garvaghy Road, Father Sean Larkin celebrates open-air mass against a background of an army vehicle cordon. He says they feel anger, hurt, humiliation and depression but insists they must respond "with vigour and non-violence". Asking the congregation to shake hands as a sign of peace, he himself walks over and shakes the hands of two soldiers.

10.45am: Secretary of State Mo Mowlam backs Mr Flanagan but tells nationalists: "Your voice is not ignored. I understand your feelings and I will address them in legislating on this issue."

12.45pm: Residents congregate in readiness for the Orange parade. Some bottles and missiles, including golf balls, are thrown at police lines by youths. Stewards attempt to stop them. Residents stage a noisy protest, beating the ground with dustbin lids, blowing whistles and banging saucepan lids with sticks.

1pm: The cacophony reaches a crescendo as around 1,200 Orangemen pass by. They march silently, six abreast. Many look straight ahead, not even glancing through the police lines towards the jeering residents. Occasional missiles are let fly but none reaches the parade. Two residents who have penetrated the police cordon hold up posters and shout "Bastards" and other abuse at marchers and police.

1.20pm: The parade having passed safely by, more missiles are thrown at police who are now in the process of withdrawing from the area. Male and female stewards link arms to push the stone-throwers back. A chant of "No ceasefire" goes up.

As troops and police carry out a phased withdrawal from the estate and move along the Garvaghy Road, they come under increasing attack from young stone-throwers. Stewards attempt to stop this, but the throwing is greeted with an increasing volume of cheering, which appears to encourage the attackers.

Police and troops reply with a dozen or more plastic bullets to fend off the throwers. They eventually depart from the scene leaving the estate and the Garvaghy Road strewn with debris.

3pm: Disturbances break out in nationalist districts of Belfast and elsewhere.

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