Tony Blair told the head of the Orange Order to call for an immediate end to the Drumcree parading dispute hours after three young brothers were killed in a loyalist firebomb attack.
The Prime Minister held talks with Grand Master Robert Saulters following the blaze that killed brothers Richard, 10, Mark, nine, and Jason Quinn, eight, in their home in Ballymoney, Co Antrim, according to newly released archives.
Details of the exchange were outlined in a letter Mr Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell sent to a senior official in the Northern Ireland Office.
The letter indicates that, in reply, Mr Saulters told Mr Blair to disband the Parades Commission, a recently established independent adjudication body set up to rule on contentious marches in Northern Ireland.
The attack on the Quinn home happened in the early hours of the main date in the Protestant loyal order parading calendar, the Twelfth of July.
It came amid a febrile atmosphere in Northern Ireland linked to the parading flashpoint at Drumcree in Portadown. Thousands of Orangemen and loyalists were occupying the area around Drumcree, insisting they would not leave until they were allowed to parade down the Garvaghy Road, a route that passed a nationalist area.
At that time, the route was one of the most contested in Northern Ireland, with Portadown Orangemen and nationalist residents of the Garvaghy Road locked in a bitter stand-off.
Police had been attacked the previous three summers in clashes that had involved loyalist and nationalist rioters.
The Government-appointed Parades Commission had banned the Orange parade going down the Garvaghy Road that year. In protest, the Orangemen had marched to Drumcree church on July 5 and vowed not to leave until the parade was permitted.
There was a huge security presence in the area, with thousands of police and army personnel having erected metal barriers blocking the Orangemen’s access to the Garvaghy Road.
Violence had erupted in areas across Northern Ireland since the Parades Commission ruling and there had been intensive attempts to get both the Portadown District of the Orange Order and the Garvaghy residents engaged in a talks process to find resolution.
Mr Powell’s letter to NIO official Ken Lindsay outlined the conversation between Mr Blair and Mr Saulters. It has been released by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.
“The Prime Minister spoke this afternoon with Robbie Saulters of the Orange Order, who was meeting with other senior officials of the Orange Order and (Ulster Unionist First Minister) David Trimble,” Mr Powell wrote.
“The Prime Minister said it was essential for the Orange Order to call on the Portadown District to leave the hill at Drumcree.
“If that happened we could carry on with the dialogue to find a solution both for this year and for future years. It would be easier to resolve the problem if the men left the hill. We could not of course give a guarantee that we will be successful in securing a march this year.”
Mr Powell continued: “Robbie Saulters said the Orange Order would like a guarantee of a march this year. The date of 21 September had been mentioned. They were worried the dialogue would just drag on forever. The Prime Minister said that to be blunt it was essential they come off the hill today.
“If the Orange Order leaders did not call for this it would reflect very badly on the whole Orange Order. Feelings in other parts of the community were very high. He could not give a guarantee that the march would go down. This was not within his gift. But he could promise to resume the talks to find a way of agreeing on a march this year and on marches in future years.
“Saulters then asked if the Prime Minister could abolish the Parades Commission. The Prime Minister said this was not possible either. We would work to avoid the problems we had encountered this year but we could not suddenly announce the abolition of the Parades Commission in the aftermath of this awful tragedy.
“Saulters concluded by saying that he and other members of the Grand Lodge would go to Drumcree to persuade the men to get off the hill. He was not convinced that they would be successful but they would try.”
Orangemen and loyalists remained at Drumcree on the Twelfth but their numbers started to dwindle in the days after that. The Orangemen have not been permitted to parade down Garvaghy Road from 1998 onward.