Ivan Little: The will may still remain... but Drumcree is one battle that won't be won
Like a battered and bloodied boxer who keeps trying to beat the inevitable count, the Orangemen of Portadown were still refusing to admit defeat yesterday in the battle of Drumcree Hill.
But after two decades of going nowhere there was a near tangible sense that the brethren were going through the motions as they prepared for the journey down Garvaghy Road which they knew they wouldn’t complete.
The last time Portadown District LOL No 1 were allowed to walk through the nationalist area was 21 years ago and ever since they were banned from their traditional route the Orangemen have instead followed their traditional routine of protesting and posturing.
And so it was yesterday. Deja vu at Drumcree. Almost.
Back in the day the very name of Drumcree used to strike fear into the hearts of thousands of people for whom it was a byword for rioting, intimidation, roadblocks and murder as loyalists across Northern Ireland took up the cudgel, literally and figuratively, in support of the Portadown Orangemen.
The difference yesterday was that Drumcree has largely been forgotten. And as Orangemen set off from Carleton Street Orange Hall on their one way trip to their annual service at Drumcree Parish Church it was as if time, like the dispute itself, had stood still.
Many of the main Orange figures were still there, attempting to sound as defiant and determined as ever to finish their march, even though they may only have been kidding themselves.
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Normally an Orange official appears at an open window in the 144-year-old Carleton Street hall to read a feisty statement intended to raise the spirits of the lodge members as they stride out to Drumcree. But yesterday no-one could track down the sound system.
In the centre of town it was equally hard to find supporters for the parade which at one point went under a banner — which wasn’t erected by the Orange Order — backing Soldier F, the Para who is to be charged with the murders of two people on Bloody Sunday.
In the past, there were thousands of people on the streets. Yesterday there were barely 200.
“The fire went out of the belly of Drumcree long ago,” said one observer.
Not so, insisted district master Darryl Hewitt, who added: “We still intend to complete the journey. The resolve of Orangemen is as strong as ever.”
Veteran Orangeman Arnold Hatch said: “It’s not in our DNA to step back and give in to threats.”
David Jones, another long-time Orangeman, said: “We want to see justice being done.
“There’s been an onslaught against our culture. First it was parades, then it was flags, now it’s bonfires.”
Deputy district master Nigel Dawson said he could foresee movement on the horizon, adding: “I’m not saying we will walk it for ever and a day when we do walk it but I think that the authorities will have to put the parade down the road because it’s the right thing to do.”
Residents on the Garvaghy Road clearly don’t see change — or the parade — coming.
Yesterday they were ignoring the Orangemen. One woman who was walking her dog said: “I didn’t know this was Drumcree Sunday until you told me. It’s a dead duck.”
Hundreds of police and soldiers used to stand at the flashpoint Catholic church at the end of Garvaghy Road to keep nationalists and Orangemen apart. Yesterday four PSNI officers were there. To direct traffic.
From the doorway of the church residents’ spokesman Brendan Mac Cionnaith watched as the Orangemen walked by in less than three minutes to a single drumbeat. He said: “Drumcree Sunday is a complete non-event. There’s no way people here would stand for a march.”
The Rev Gary Galway, the minister who replaced the former Church of Ireland rector Rev John Pickering 11 years ago, was on holiday yesterday.
The service was conducted by Mr Edwin McCamley, the diocesan leader who said he preached the gospel, leaving Drumcree to others to address.
Outside, the fields around the church which once resembled a war zone with thousands of loyalists confronting and often attacking huge numbers of police and soldiers, were occupied by a few dozen cows.
Every Sunday about 20 Orangemen take part in a ‘token’ protest at Drumcree bridge, the once heavily fortified scene of repeated clashes at the height of the marching crisis, but yesterday around 200 brethren walked down the hill to three crush barriers manned by a few officers.
The protests were more civil than they once were. But afterwards the Ora ngemen obeyed the Parades Commission ruling and marched back up the hill, vowing to fight another day.