Endgame failed to match game plan

Ulster in turmoil: As riots spread, confidential document reveals how Government compromise initiative unravelled
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The Independent Online
The confidential Northern Ireland Office document illustrates how the Government's carefully-crafted game plan to preserve some semblance of balance in the Drumcree march decision came to nothing.

The idea of allowing the march to go ahead but to soften the blow for nationalists with a series of compensating measures foundered on the rock of lack of agreement, or even serious negotiation, between the conflicting parties.

In the event none of the suggested palliatives were introduced, leading to the end result of a march pushed through by means of a huge security force operation which has seriously damaged Mo Mowlam's relations with Irish nationalists.

The document provided a blueprint on how to handle the run-up to the march. It started from the premise that no local accommodation between the Orange Order and Garvaghy Road Catholic residents would emerge, noting that opinion was hardening at grassroots level. This was particularly the case on the loyalist side, it said, after the IRA killed two policemen in nearby Lurgan.

It recommended that the two sides should be invited to "proximity talks," which did take place. It defined the prime objective of these as achieving accommodation or, failing that, to gain agreement that any protests would be made within the law. It added: "A key objective would also be to demonstrate that the Government is playing a pro- active and imaginative role and going the extra mile to find a solution, even if that effort eventually fails."

The document said that while no final decision had been made the consensus among "the key players" was that in the absence of local accommodation a controlled parade was the least worst outcome. These players were listed as Ms Mowlam, her security minister Adam Ingram, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Army and Alistair Graham, chairman of the Parades Commission.

Given this, it laid out that an objective of the proximity talks was to "identify the maximum concessions which the Orange Order are willing to make to strip out from the parade resonances which nationalists might find offensive".

The document displayed distrust of both the Order and the Catholics, saying, for example, that they should be invited to the proximity talks "not so far ahead that they - particularly the residents - have time to devise plausible pre-conditions which might scupper the whole exercise."

In a reference to the national Orange Order head, Robert Saulters, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and the SDLP leader, John Hume, it added: "It will be important to brief key influencers in advance so that they can come in in support of the invitation, for example, Saulters and Trimble on the Orange side and Hume, Brid Rodgers of the SDLP and the Irish [Government] in respect of the residents."

In laying plans for the proximity talks it specified: "It would clearly be wrong for the Government to disclose an early fixed position. A bald statement that a march will almost definitely be doing down the road, and the only issue for discussion is the modalities of that event, would probably cause the residents to become more obdurate while taking the pressure off the Orange Order."

Referring to residents' spokesman Brendan McKenna, the document said the idea was to establish that the Government meant business in the hope of "persuading McKenna (and Sinn Fein) that it is time to play for the draw." This appears to mean convincing residents that a parade would go through and having them concentrate on discussing its details.

The Government hoped to persuade the Order to have a smaller, earlier parade without bands or regalia such as swords, flags or banners. As other elements of balance the Government thought of supporting a nationalist parade or festival, setting up a task force to examine community relations in the town, and clamping down on other loyalist parades.

The document summed up the Government's hopes: "Ideally it would be possible to announce the decision early and accompany it with light or no policing on the Garvaghy Road, on the basis of an understanding with the residents." This was clearly a far cry from the saturation policing and disturbances which actually resulted.