Drumcree: 10th Anniversary

Drumcree confirmed ‘bowler-hatted bigots’ stereotype

Rite and Reason

Next Sunday sees the 10th anniversary of the first Drumcree. 

The Rev Brian Kennaway reflects on the impact of all Drumcrees since

A Google search on ‘Drumcree’ reveals that there has been an enormous amount written over the last decade on this seemingly intractable problem.  After a decade of “Drumcree Sundays”, and as we approach “Drumcree Eleven”, perhaps the time has come to analyse the Drumcree phenomena and look at its impact both within the Orange Order and in the wider community.

As one who attended the early Drumcree Rallies in 1995 and 1996 in support of what I still see as a “just cause”, the right to peacefully walk the public roads as an affirmation of Civil Liberties, I can discern a hardening of attitudes over the years.

The violence associated with the protests over the years has escalated.  In the early years of 95/96 it was minimal on ‘the hill’, although the province-wide protests, badly organised as they were, did not win friends and influence people to the Orange cause.  The impact on ordinary decent Orangemen was devastating.  As one Presbyterian Elder commented as he resigned from the Institution, “I did not join the Orange Order to block roads”.

Although the leadership assured the membership that they would not allow this to happen again, the violence has escalated over the years, particularly in 1998 and 2002.  The impact of the violence directed towards the Crown Forces by members of the Institution, many of whom were wearing Orange regalia, should not be lost on the wider community.

While many walked away from the Institution because of this overt violence, others held on in the vane hope that things would be dealt with.  The promises of discipline by the leadership soon turned to pledges of support, as those charged with offences over Drumcree 2002 appeared in court and were found guilty of riotous behaviour.  This only added insult to injury as far as the truly authentic Orangeman was concerned.

The Drumcree phenomena, is unfortunately not restricted to the events on Drumcree Hill.  The election of David Trimble to the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party on the 8th September 1995 has often been attributed to the part which he played in the resolution of the protest earlier that year.  This has been associated in the public mind with the now famous holding hands aloft with Ian Paisley – which the media insist was on the Garvaghy Road, though it was in fact in Carlton Street Portadown, where the Orange Hall is situated.

As Dean Godson points out in his biography of Trimble, not everyone is agreed that Drumcree was a positive attribute, and it may have cost him as much as it gained him.  Popular opinion however attributes his success to the part he played at Drumcree in 1995.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 only added fuel to the fire as the Drumcree protest was concerned.  What began in 1995 as a ‘Civil Rights’ protest quickly became an anti-Agreement protest.

Although the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland never came out against the Agreement, and refused to do so when a ‘no’ resolution was proposed, the Institution is perceived to be anti-Agreement because the leadership of the Grand Lodge clearly identified themselves with the ‘no’ campaign.

This complex confusion of issues only added to the multifaceted nature of the Drumcree problem and made its resolution even more difficult.

The consequences for the Orange Order in the midst of all this confusion, was that we confirmed our worst stereotypes, as bowler-hated bigots.  The Order therefore continued to lose membership among middle Ulster, and those young Protestants of intellectual ability who might have been tempted to throw in their weight with the Orange cause, failed to do so in any significant numbers.  As the Institution continued to be ravaged internally with failed strategies and duplicitous dealings it did not present an attractive image of the future, at least not the attractive future which post-conflict Protestants desired.

Relationships between the two communities, already polarised as a direct result of thirty years of sectarian conflict, are further entrenched by loyalist paramilitary presence at sensitive Orange parades in Belfast.

While the violence itself had a negative impact on the image of the Orange Institution, that negative impact could have been lessened if the leadership had taken a firm hand and exercised discipline.  That they had not the courage to do so has been clearly demonstrated.

The former Executive Officer, of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, George Patton wrote, “Once Orangemen allow themselves to betray Biblical Protestantism they deny their raison d’être“.

Clearly any human institution claiming to be based on the Bible and professing to maintain the principles of the Reformed Faith, should reflect upon the instructions contained in the Bible.  Paul instructed the Roman Christians – “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” [Romans 12:18]

The Rev Brian Kennaway, Presbyterian minister at Crumlin in Belfast, is a former convenor

of the education committee of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland.


This article appeared in the Irish Times on 27th June 2005