“Drumcree: The Orange Order’s Last Stand” (Book Review)

“Drumcree: The Orange Order’s Last Stand”


Chris Ryder & Vincent Kearney

Published by Methuen 2001

Price £12.99

The annual Drumcree Stand-off is, among other things, totally incomprehensible to many within the Catholic tradition.  For many, this book will I believe will go some way to help to explain, but not defend, the divisions which run deep in this Mid-Ulster community.

Written by two very experienced journalists it is the product painstaking research and wise political analysis.  The opening chapters give a useful background to the conflict at Drumcree.  They cover the Orange background in County Armagh in general and Portadown in particular demonstrating just why Portadown is regarded as the “Vatican of Orangeism”.

The potted Irish history is both useful and necessary to the subject matter of the Drumcree conflict.  It is also useful to have a potted history of the RUC, as it demonstrates the involvement of the Police from the earliest days of the conflict.

As the book develops to cover the events of the 1970’s, which resulted in the demographic changes in the new housing estates which now surround Garvaghy Road, the authors remind us of the events and issues which created a lasting impression on both communities in Portadown.

As the reader gets into the book the scene is set for a replay of Drumcree 1,2,3 etc.  While in some respects this is sad reading, as it reveals that people do not learn from the mistakes of the past,  it serves to remind us of just what has been done in the name of ‘Orangeism’ or ‘Nationalism’.  The Ormeau Road conflict is not ignored either.  The incident of 8th July 1992, in what the Secretary of State was to refer to as behaviour which ‘would have disgraced a tribe of cannibals’, is highlighted. The Orangemen of Ballynafeigh are still living with the consequences of a twenty second display of sectarian bigotry and gross stupidity.

The writers set the tone and communicate the feeling of betrayal by Orangemen, over the blocking of the parade in 1995 when they were given permission by the RUC to walk home by the Garvaghy Road.  The involvement of Rev. Ian Paisley is noted but the account does not make clear that he is not a member of the Orange Order.

As the book goes on to list all the major events ‘high’ and ‘low’, from the first Drumcree of 1995 to the latest attempts to break the impasse, a number of interesting features appear.

The intransigence on the part of both sides in this dispute is beyond comprehension.  This book reveals that the procedural wrangling of the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition at the various initiatives is only matched by the stubbornness of the Portadown District to get involved in ‘face to face’ negotiations.  The refusal of the Coalition to accept a British Government Minister to adjudicate the dispute on the grounds that the Government was part of the problem, is only matched by the refusal of Portadown District to talk directly to Brendan McKenna on the grounds of his terrorist past.  The morality for such a position was lost when Portadown Master Harold Gracey shared a platform with Billy Wright.

The past six years are littered with the efforts of various people and groups to broker a compromise over this most contested piece of road.  All, as we sadly know, to no avail.  The use of various ‘brokers’ like Brendan McAlister of Mediation Network, in the earlier years of the dispute, to the more recent involvement of Brian Currin the South African Human rights lawyer have all produced no positive result.

That the violence has been counter productive is beyond question.  The authors note that following the death of the Quinn Children “the protest crumbled”. (Page 281)  But the Quinn children were not the only victims of violence of the 1998 stand-off.  Constable Jason McBride is the only one mentioned but others were injured in a blast bomb attack at Drumcree.  They included Chief Inspector John Barr, Constable James Harkness and Reserve Constable William Irvine.

This was to be followed by the death of Constable Frank O’Reilly five weeks after a blast bomb attack during a loyalist protest on 5th September 1998.  The Member of Parliament for Lagan Valley, Jeffrey Donaldson, recognised:- “It dramatically reduced the level of support from middle Ulster Protestants”.

This recognition on Donaldson’s part stands in contrast to the action of the Grand Lodge leadership, who did not appear to understand that any organisation depends to a greater or lesser extent on ‘popular support’.  The ability of the Grand Lodge leadership to deal with the issues which confront them is brought into question.  The authors comment:- “Its leaders had vacillated about condemning violence, issued ambiguous and contradictory statements, refused to distance themselves from the likes of Adair and generally appeared to have acted like rabbits in a car’s headlights.” . . . Within Grand Lodge equivocation and ambivalence were the order of the day”. (Page 331)

The ability of the leadership to deal honestly with the situation is questioned, when it is revealed that they did not distribute the Currin Report prepared at the request of the leadership, to the Grand Lodge meeting on 3rd February 2001.  Neither, so it is revealed, did they disclose the substance of a similar Report by Austin Morgan prepared in August 2000.  The authors comment with some justification:- “There is now widespread feeling that Grand Lodge leaders actively promote ignorance to pacify unthinking hardliners and traditionalists and prevent unrest”. (Page 354)


The authors clearly conclude that, as an Institution the Orange Order is “letting the Portadown tail wag the Orange dog” (page 276).  This is perhaps something which those from the Catholic tradition, accustomed as they are to a hierarchical structure, find difficult to comprehend.  Clearly there is a sense in which the leadership are, “in office but not in power”.

This book is fair, balanced, and as far as I can discern a factually accurate record.  The careful reader should be rewarded with a better understanding of the present conflict over Drumcree, and perhaps a prophetic view of where the Orange Order is going in the twenty-first century.

Brian Kennaway

Former Convenor

Education Committee

Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland