1997 nationalist riots in Northern Ireland
From 6 to 11 July 1997 there were mass protests, fierce riots and gun battles in Irish nationalist districts of Northern Ireland. Irish nationalists/republicans, in some cases supported by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), attacked the police (Royal Ulster Constabulary – RUC) and British Army. The protests and violence were sparked by the decision to allow the Orange Order (a Protestant, unionist organization) to march through a Catholic/nationalist neighbourhood of Portadown. Irish nationalists were outraged by the decision and by the RUC's aggressive treatment of those protesting against the march. There had been a bitter dispute over the march for many years.
It was the last spell of widespread violence in Northern Ireland before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. The security forces were attacked hundreds of times by rioters throwing stones and petrol bombs, and by IRA members with rifles and grenades. They fired more than 2,500 plastic bullets at rioters and exchanged gunfire with the IRA. More than 100 civilians and 65 security force personnel were injured. There were many complaints of police brutality and a 13-year-old boy went into a coma after being struck on the head by a plastic bullet. Hundreds of burning vehicles were used to block roads. The security forces had to withdraw entirely from some nationalist areas of Belfast. The IRA's involvement in the clashes was its last major action during its 27-year campaign. The paramilitary organization declared its last ceasefire on 19 July.
The Orange Order is a Protestant, unionist fraternal organization. It insists that it should be allowed to march its traditional route to-and-from Drumcree Church each July. It had marched this route since 1807, when the area was mostly farmland. However, today most of this route is through the mainly Catholic/Irish nationalist part of Portadown. The residents sought to re-route the march away from their area, seeing it as "triumphalist" and "supremacist". They likened it to a Ku Klux Klan march through an African American neighbourhood.
The march was first banned in 1832, although the law was ignored by the Orangemen. Local magistrate William Hancock wrote in 1835: "For some time past the peaceable inhabitants of the parish of Drumcree have been insulted and outraged by large bodies of Orangemen parading the highways, playing party tunes, firing shots, and using the most opprobrious epithets they could invent... a body of Orangemen marched through the town and proceeded to Drumcree church, passing by the Catholic chapel though it was a considerable distance out of their way." The onset of the Troubles in 1969 led to the dispute intensifying. In 1987, the Orangemen were banned from marching along Obins Street, after their march caused severe rioting two years in a row. However, the Orangemen were still allowed to march along the other main road in the Catholic area, the Garvaghy Road.
In 1995, residents formed the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition (GRRC) to try and divert the march away from Garvaghy Road. The dispute escalated that July when residents blocked Garvaghy Road for two days. Orangemen and their supporters clashed with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) until the residents were persuaded to clear the road and the march went ahead.
The July 1996 march was banned from Garvaghy Road. Thousands of Orangemen and their supporters gathered at Drumcree and there was a three-day standoff with the RUC. They held large protests and attacked the police and Catholics throughout Northern Ireland. The Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) shot dead a Catholic taxi driver and threatened further attacks. As a result, the ban was lifted. Police violently removed nationalist protesters from Garvaghy Road and forced the march through. This sparked days of rioting in Catholic/nationalist areas of Northern Ireland; one protester was crushed to death by a British Army armoured vehicle in Derry.
July 1997 Drumcree parade
In June 1997, Secretary of State Mo Mowlam had privately decided to let the march proceed. However, in the days leading up to the march, she insisted that no decision had been made. She met Taioseach Bertie Ahern, who stressed that any unilateral decision to allow the march would be 'a mistake'. The RUC and the Northern Ireland Office said they would announce their decision two or three days before the march.
As the parade day approached, thousands more British troops were flown into Northern Ireland, while thousands of people left the province fearing another outbreak of violence. Garvaghy Road residents set up a peace camp along the road. The Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) threatened to kill Catholic civilians if the march was not allowed to proceed and the Ulster Unionist Party also threatened to withdraw from the Northern Ireland peace process negotiations. On 4 July, sixty families had to be evacuated from their homes on Garvaghy Road after a loyalist bomb threat.
On Sunday 6 July at 3:30am, 1,500 soldiers and riot police swept into the nationalist area in 100 armoured vehicles. They took control of Garvaghy Road so it would be free for the marchers. This led to clashes with about 300 protesters, who began a sit-down protest on the road. They were forcibly removed by riot police. Rosemary Nelson, the lawyer for the residents coalition, was verbally and physically abused by officers. Some officers claimed that residents taunted them about the killing of their two colleagues in Lurgan while shouting IRA slogans. From this point onward, the road was sealed off by rows of armoured vehicles and residents were hemmed into their housing estates. As residents were unable to reach the Catholic church, the local priests held an open-air mass in front of a line of soldiers and armoured personnel carriers. Ronnie Flanagan, the Chief Constable, said the march had been allowed to go ahead to avoid loyalist violence. The parade marched along Garvaghy Road at noon that day. After it passed, the security forces began withdrawing from the area and severe rioting erupted. They were attacked by hundreds of nationalists with stones, bricks and petrol bombs. About 40 plastic bullets were fired at rioters, and about 18 people had to be hospitalised.
Violent reaction in nationalist areas
Sunday 6 July
Violence erupted across Northern Ireland that evening as news from Portadown reached nationalist areas. Unionist politicians accused the IRA of starting the riots. Irish republican sources admitted that the IRA was openly involved in the unrest, unlike in 1996, when it had restrained itself from retaliation. The IRA claimed a number of actions in response to the Drumcree crisis. During the weekend alone, the IRA carried out at least nine attacks on British troops.
In South Belfast, a lone IRA member with an AK-47 opened-fire on an RUC checkpoint at Lower Ormeau Road. Five rounds hit an APC parked on the Ormeau Bridge. The attack was filmed by a BBC television crew. Nearby, an IRA unit prevented a riot squad from entering the Markets area after firing 20 rounds at them.
In North Belfast, several British Army patrols were harassed by gunfire and a bomb was thrown at an RUC base. An armoured vehicle was set on fire in Ardoyne, according to republican sources. Another one was burnt-out on Antrim Road. Late that evening in the Oldpark area, an RUC Land Rover became stuck in a barricade made of iron pilings and its crew had to flee when it was attacked with petrol bombs.
In the Lenadoon area of West Belfast, the RUC shot a 14-year-old boy and 13-year-old girl with plastic bullets. The boy was struck in the head and spent three days in a coma, while the girl was struck in the face. The RUC said there was rioting in the area at the time, but republicans denied this, claiming the RUC had arrived in Land Rovers and "opened fire on groups of young people returning home from a disco".
There was violence at the interface on Lanark Way, which separates the loyalist Shankill and republican Falls districts. Stones, bricks and bottles were hurled across the security fence. An Phoblacht reported that warning shots were fired from the nationalist side.
On Sunday evening in Derry, thousands of people joined a protest march from the Bogside to the RUC base at Strand Road. Martin McGuinness addressed the crowd, calling on nationalists elsewhere to take to the streets to demand "justice and equality" and to "stand up for their rights". Although the protesters returned to the Bogside peacefully, there was violence in the city centre.
At Butcher Gate, there were running clashes between the RUC and at least 300 nationalist youths. Cars were hijacked and burnt and one was set abalaze after being driven through the gates of a bank. It is claimed that the RUC fired "upwards of 1,000 plastic bullets", many of them fired "indiscriminately" and aimed "above the waist, in direct contravention of the rules governing the use of such lethal weapons". A 16-year-old boy suffered "a fractured skull, a broken jaw, and shattered facial bones amongst other injuries" after allegedly being beaten by RUC officers. He was on life support for some time afterwards. An eyewitness described seeing one man, allegedly an onlooker, being shot in the face: "The side of his face was completely torn away, and he seemed to just slump to the ground". Several others suffered serious head injuries. Nine were admitted to Altnagelvin Hospital with plastic bullet injuries. At least 30 others sought treatment at first aid houses or at Letterkenny Hospital across the border. Most of downtown Derry was sealed off by the RUC and British Army.
In Newry, 3,000 joined a protest march to the Ardmore RUC base, where a rally was held. People marched behind banners saying "Disband the RUC" and "Dismantle the Orange State". Later, masked and armed men set a Social Security office on fire and blocked several roads with burning vehicles.
- County Tyrone
In Coalisland, the IRA's East Tyrone Brigade launched a gun attack on an RUC armoured vehicle outside the RUC base; a female officer from Portadown was badly wounded. Some sources fixed the date of the attack as 5 July. In Strabane, nationalists hijacked and burnt 13 vehicles. About 250 petrol bombs were thrown at RUC officers, who fired plastic bullets in return. An Orange Order hall was set on fire in Dungannon, while nationalist residents forced their way through RUC lines to stop an Orange march in Pomeroy.
- County Armagh
In Armagh, hundreds attended a protest rally at The Shambles. Later, the RUC and British Army set up roadblocks on entrances to the town centre and nationalist youths hijacked a number of vehicles. There were clashes between nationalists and the RUC on English Street; two youths were injured by plastic bullets. Just before midnight, there was a shootout between two IRA members and the RUC at a roadblock. The same roadblock was later petrol-bombed as violence continued into the night.
In Lurgan, nine masked IRA members boarded a train, forced the passengers out and set it on fire, destroying five carriages.
Monday 7 July
By 7 July, there were over 100 people injured, six of them in seriously. The RUC said there had been 1,600 plastic bullets fired, 550 attacks on the security forces, and 41 people arrested. The fire service had received 500 calls and the ambulance service 150, while the damage to property was estimated at £20 million.
Shortly after midnight, a 25-year-old woman suffered a fractured bone after being shot in the leg by a live round fired from New Barnsley RUC base. The base was the target of a gun and grenade attack. At the Larnak Way interface in West Belfast, loyalists tried to enter the nationalist area at 3am. A shot fired from the nationalist side struck a 14-year-old Protestant boy who was climbing over the security fence. It hit him in the shoulder and punctured a lung. One source reported that warning shots had been fired, while another said the teenager was wounded when an IRA unit launched a gun and grenade attack on a military base near the interface. Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) gunmen also opened fire on British soldiers in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast.
In the Dunmurry area of Belfast, a member of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) was killed when the pipe bomb he was handling exploded prematurely. The incident happened at an arms dump in a remote area. Later that night, members of the UDA and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) held a joint "show of strength" in North Belfast. Masked men armed with assault rifles and machine guns were filmed patrolling in Woodvale, saying they were there to protect Protestants. Members of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) held a similar "show of strength" on Tuesday night.
A 39-year-old American citizen, John Hemsworth, was beaten with a baton by RUC officers on his way home in the nationalist Falls area. He was stopped in Malcomson Street, where he was assaulted and verbally abused by the officers. There were no riots or protests in the area at the time. Hemsworth suffered a broken jaw and other injuries, and was admitted to hospital. He was discharged, but on 27 December he was re-admitted and died from a massive stroke on 1 January 1998. An inquest later found that he had died as result of the injuries received during the RUC beating.
In the mainly nationalist village of Bellaghy, County Londonderry, residents mounted a peaceful protest against the yearly Orange march. There were scuffles as the RUC and British Army moved the protesters away from the parade route. Martin McGuinness was struck on the head with a baton while giving an interview nearby.
Newry was declared "impassable" by the Automobile Association. A shopping centre in the town was looted by what republican sources called "a gang responsible for a long series of anti-social activities and intimidation". The IRA reportedly injured two of the gang members in a punishment shooting on 13 July.
There was severe rioting in Downpatrick; masked gunmen were spotted and RUC officers fired into the air during the disturbances. They arrested a man and seized a gun and masks.
Tuesday 8 July
On 8 July, a document was leaked to the press which hinted that Mo Mowlan had decided in June to allow the Drumcree march to proceed. This caused further outrage among nationalists. That day, residents announced that they would block the Orange Order's 12 July parades in Armagh, Newry, Bellaghy, Lower Ormeau Road (Belfast), Derry and Strabane.
An RUC source confirmed that the IRA had carried out more than a dozen gun and grenade attacks since 6 July, while 250 vehicles had been burnt. The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) threatened to attack Orangemen whom it considered responsible for forcing parades through nationalist neighbourhoods.
The IRA's Belfast Brigade claimed that dozens of its members were involved in operations against the security forces in West and North Belfast since Sunday.
In the Ardoyne area of North Belfast, there was a shootout between IRA members and an RUC mobile patrol, without casualties. Later, an IRA volunteer fired 15 shots at a British soldier who was firing plastic bullets at rioters in Ardoyne. According to a republican report, this action was filmed by an independent television crew. The IRA also allegedly shot two loyalists who were throwing petrol bombs at Catholic homes there. Nearby, there was another gunfight between the IRA and RUC on Oldpark Road, and a rocket attack on Hallidays Road, in the New Lodge.
In West Belfast, 15 shots were fired and an improvised grenade thrown at Woodbourne Army base. On the Falls Road, 20 rounds were fired at a British security checkpoint. Although there was return fire, all the IRA members made good their escape. According to independent sources, IRA members fired at British soldiers and RUC officers who were trying to remove barricades in North Belfast in the early hours of Tuesday, forcing them to retreat. No injuries were reported. Petrol bombs were thrown at RUC vehicles and a passing 11-year-boy suffered severe burns when he was mistakenly hit by one of the bombs. The Protestant estate at Suffolk was attacked from Lenadoon. Several cars were burned. Scattered riots continued throughout the day and the outbound lanes of a highway were blocked by hijacked cars.
During disturbances in Portadown on Tuesday morning, an RUC officer was shot in the arm and leg near Garvaghy Road. In Newry, British government buildings were set on fire and a train was partially burnt out at the railway station.
On Tuesday evening, protesters held a "white line picket" in The Shambles area of Armagh. A crowd of several hundred surged up English Street and were blocked by a line of RUC landrovers. The picket lasted an hour and was concluded after Sinn Féin councillor Noel Sheridan addressed the crowd, urging them to attend further protests during the week.
Wednesday 9 July
On 9 July, the British Government sent in 400 soldiers of the Staffordshire Regiment to reinforce the 30,000 troops and RUC members already deployed in Northern Ireland. A landmine was planted by the IRA near Dungannon, where several vehicles were burnt, while shots were fired in Strabane and a rifle recovered at Short Strand in Belfast. A number of false bomb threats threw traffic into chaos. In Carrickmore, County Tyrone, yet another Orange hall was set on fire. In Lurgan's Kilwilkie estate, RUC and Royal Irish Regiment troops tried to clear residents from their homes after claiming there was a bomb near the railway line. When a man was allegedly assaulted by the troops, about 150 people gathered to confront them. RUC officers threatened to fire plastic bullets at the gathering crowd before the bulk of the forces agreed to leave the area. Since Tuesday, the RUC recorded 76 people arrested, 900 plastic bullets fired and 265 attacks on the security forces.
In West Belfast, a car bomb exploded outside shops on the Andersonstown Road. The car had been left by three men wearing dark glasses and carrying walkie-talkies. Sinn Féin members helped clear the area and claimed that the RUC took almost an hour to answer a call from a member of the public. Loyalists were believed to be responsible for the blast.
The INLA threatened to shoot Protestants if parades in Belfast was allowed to go ahead, while the LVF vowed to shoot people in the Republic if the marches were banned. The later threat was taken "very seriously" by Gardaí commander Pat Byrne, who put on alert all security checkpoints along the border.
The Orange Order vowed to gather its entire organisation at Ormeau Park if the parade there was banned. Converserly, the Bogside Residents Group called for a huge demonstration to stop 12 July Orange march in Derry.
Thursday 10 July
In Belfast, the North of Ireland Rugby & Cricket Club and the Carnmoney Church of Ireland were damaged in arson attacks. There was a security alert at Newry RUC station and the Ulster Unionist Party Headquarters received a hoax letter bomb in the post. In Lisnaskea, five commercial buildings owned by Orangemen were attacked and an Orange hall was petrol-bombed in Waterside, Derry.
Friday 11 July
On 11 July in North Belfast, the IRA launched a gun and bomb attack on a checkpoint guarded by a Saxon armoured vehicle. Three British soldiers and two RUC officers were injured. The IRA unit fired 56 shots from two AK-47 assault rifles and also threw a coffee-jar bomb. The soldiers were members of the recently arrived Staffordshire Regiment. In a separate incident on Doon Road, in West Belfast, an RUC/British Army patrol was the target of a grenade attack. The Independent reported that two teenage Protestants at an Eleventh Night bonfire were shot and wounded by republicans. There were also a number of clashes between nationalists and security forces overnight. An Orange hall was burned in Bond street, Derry.
By 9 July, according to an RUC report, 60 RUC officers and 56 civilians had been injured while 117 people had been arrested. There had been 815 attacks on the security forces, 1,506 petrol bombs thrown and 402 hijackings. The RUC had fired 2,500 plastic bullets. According to other sources, over 100 people are believed to have been injured. The last IRA action took place on 12 July, when an improvised mortar round fell 40 yards short of the RUC/British Army base at Newtownhamilton, South Armagh. Arsonists attacked an Orange hall in Warrenpoint, County Down and another in Rasharkin, County Antrim.
The violence died down on 10 July when the Orange Order decided unilaterally to re-route six parades. The following day, Orangemen and residents agreed to waive another march in Newtownbutler, County Fermanagh. In Pomeroy, County Tyrone, nationalist residents blocked Orangemen's return parade with a counter-demonstration, while the marches in Newry and Lower Ormeau were cancelled outright. The Order's gesture was unheard of in its 202-year history. According to Anglican minister Bill Hoey, a member of the Order, "this was an extremely bitter pill to swallow, but the powers that be made it clear to us that to have taken any other decision would have meant civil war." Author Eric Kaufmann claims that the RUC overstated security threats to trick county lodge officials into taking the decision. This was the last time the Order marched the Garvaghy Road in Portadown.
In a parallel development, on 9 July the British government assured Sinn Féin that in the event of a new IRA ceasefire, representatives of that party would be allowed to meet with government ministers. A week later, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness called for a renewal of the IRA's 1994 ceasefire. The IRA announced the restoration of the ceasefire on 19 July. The Last Gunman, a photograph taken by Brendan Murphy of an IRA man firing an AK-47 on Ormeau Road, became an iconic image of the Troubles.
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