The move led to the abandonment of the scores of loyalist protests which had for four days disrupted normal life, led to more than 100 people being injured and caused widespread destruction of property.
But it was achieved at the cost of fierce criticism of the police by local residents and others. Nationalist Ireland united in protest, with political and church leaders denouncing the decision.
The move to allow the march through the Catholic Garvaghy Road district was taken by the RUC Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Annesley, who on Sunday had ordered his men to stop Orangemen from using the route. In the four- day stand-off which followed, Orangemen faced riot police across barbed wire barricades at Portadown.
When an attempt to reach a negotiated settlement failed yesterday morning, Sir Hugh feared that the 12 July marches today, the highlight of the Orange calendar which brings tens of thousands of Orangemen on the streets, would erupt into a widespread breakdown of law and order.
Hundreds of riot police were thus sent into Garvaghy Road to clear the road of residents staging a sit-down protest. Police fired plastic bullets at rioters as about 1,300 Orangemen made their way along the road.
Sir Hugh said: "I was left with the potential situation of tens of thousand of Orangemen facing thousands of policemen and soldiers. There was a bulldozer, perhaps the potential for more, and I had to look at the implications if there was a determined thrust on the police lines. It could have led accidentally or otherwise to loss of life. I was not prepared to risk the loss of a single life for the sake of re-routing that march."
Sir Hugh was strongly criticised last night. Doctor Cahal Daly launched one of the strongest attacks ever made on the British Government by a Catholic prelate, saying: "I feel personally betrayed by the British Government because I feel they have capitulated to mere force. The rule of law has been subordinated to expediency. I deeply regret and deeply deplore what they have done."
Dr Daly spoke after considering his words for some hours. The strength of his attack was a measure of nationalist dismay, in both parts of Ireland, over the day's events at Portadown.
The episode has left community relations in tatters and much bitterness in its wake. The ability of the security forces to enforce law and order is in question while the issue of contentious parades remains unresolved.
There was rioting around Garvaghy Road after the march passed and later, as loyalist areas quietened down, there were disturbances in a number of republican districts. Bus services were suspended in some areas.
Serious disruption was reported in Lurgan, County Armagh, with all major roads into the town blocked off. Police saturated the Catholic Lower Ormeau area of south Belfast, the scene of many marching season clashes, in anticipation of trouble at a march scheduled for today.
An attempt by residents to get a High Court injunction to prevent the march failed yesterday. Police sources said a decision on whether to allow the march through would be taken at the last minute.
Sir Hugh was strongly criticised by both nationalists, who said he should not have reversed his original decision, and by unionists, who said he should never have banned the march in the first place. The Democratic Unionist MP, Peter Robinson, called him "pig-headed".
The Taoiseach, John Bruton, expressed grave concern at the decision. Mr Bruton said he would be contacting John Major for an explanation.
In the Commons, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, said there would be an an independent review of how parades could be held peacefully in the future.
Power of the street, page 2
On the morning of the Twelfth, my maternal grandfather would make toast on a fork by the open grate and fill our sleepy heads with the Apprentice Boys' sacrifice: "They were so hungry they ate the rats. But they did not bow the knee. 'No Surrender,' they said, and 'No Surrender' they meant." I even liked being dragged from my bed extra early, despite the morning of the Twelfth arriving hard on the heels of the Eleventh, Bonfire Night. The night before would be spent burning the Pope and various contemporary politicians, in effigy, on wasteland or in the middle of our narrow streets, atop small mountains of planks, crates and discarded settees (we'd search the back and sides for money and always find some)...
We'd roast potatoes and swig Barr's American Cream Soda, and chant ("No Pope Here! Nor Holy Water! No Home Rule For Ireland!", "We are the People!", "Ulster Says No!", "Kill the Fenian Bastards!"). The adults would hover nearby, bright-eyed with drink, the taciturn men for once talkative and cheery, and the women, young and pretty but already running to fat, awash with unaccustomed colour, the reds, hot pinks and defiant whites prepared to compete, come the moment, with the lads' orange sashes.
- John Lyttle, page 21
The grim statistics The RUC yesterday issued the following statistics, covering the period from 7 July up to 6am yesterday morning.
n Arrests: 156
n Attacks on police: 758
n Injuries to police: 65
n Injuries to civilians: 53
n Plastic bullets fired: 662
n Intimidation of police: 68
n Intimidation of civilians: 16
n Number of roads blocked in the 12 hours before 6am yesterday: 150Reuse content