Revolutionary Worker #916, July 20, 1997
Eyewitnesses in the Northern Irish town of Portadown said there was a festival atmosphere along Garvaghy Road on Saturday July 5, as people prepared to face British troops and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) police. Artists put the finishing touches on several three-story-high murals--designed by local schoolchildren. Hundreds of people massed in the road in front of their homes, in case the police moved in. Nearby, the visiting Welsh Red Choir sang about revolution.
The surrounding area is a stronghold of right-wing, pro-British "Unionist" sympathies. Nationalist people here are a minority. Organized Unionist forces insist on staging a march down through their community.
There are many such Orange marches staged in different towns on different days by reactionary Unionists each summer. These marches commemorate the conquest of Ireland by the British King William III, aka the Prince of Orange. They openly celebrate Britain's brutal domination over the Irish people. The Unionist forces, like the Orange Order, support enforced "union" of Ireland's six northern counties with Britain, while secret militias of Unionist "Volunteers" carry out murderous attacks against Northern Ireland's Nationalist people (who are called "Catholics" in the mainstream media). The marches are a direct provocation to the Nationalists.
The Nationalist people of Garvaghy Road got ready to resist this march. At 6 p.m. on Saturday, people formed their line along the road with dozens of international observers nearby.
No one knew what the government would do. In the course of more than 20 negotiation meetings, Northern Ireland's new Secretary had promised a warning if this Orange march was approved. But there was no warning. Not only that, but under the pretext of "protecting the right of assembly" for the Orange forces the government ordered the Irish Nationalists to stay in the house. It would be as if the Ku Klux Klan announced that they would hold racist marches every summer going right through the heart of Black communities and the U.S. government demanded that all the Black people stay in their homes and shut up.
Hundreds of government vehicles--including many armored RUC landrovers and the British army's armored Saxons--moved into position--formed a tight threatening ring around the community. At 3:30 a.m., Sunday morning of July 7, thousands of police and soldiers invaded to clear Garvaghy Road for the Orangemen. Special squads of RUC police attacked people who gathered in the road with linked arms.
Eyewitness accounts of the events were posted on the An Phoblacht/Republican News website. Kieran Clifford had come from Washington, D.C. in solidarity with the people of the area. She said: "I watched the RUC in their full-body armour tearing unarmed, peaceful protesters away from the road, kicking them and batoning them as they went... If they didn't get your hands peeled away on the first go they went for your nostrils and ripped your head back until you couldn't hold on. As my turn came I held on and put my head down intent on not letting them pull me off."
Another observer, Peadar Whelan, wrote, "Black-uniformed RUC hiding behind balaclava masks punched and batoned its way down the road. As residents tried to form up in peaceful protest they were swept aside, batoned, kicked and punched as the RUC advanced. Some met this violence with bricks, bottles and other missiles. Then the first of three petrol bombs were thrown. Plastic bullets were fired and claimed their first hit. Two other men ran past with blood streaming from head wounds and a delighted youth danced proudly as he displayed the RUC helmet he captured."
The crowd reportedly chanted support for armed struggle against British domination: "No cease-fire! No cease-fire!"
After the crowd was driven back to nearby Churchill Park, they were encircled by the RUC. They sat down to continue their resistance. One by one they were attacked and dragged off through an RUC gauntlet of clubs and kicks.
One observer wrote: "No one who was there that night will forget the wanton brutality of the RUC, there is no doubt they enjoyed their work." Using these means, the RUC and soldiers temporarily seized this stretch of road, arresting over 200 people. Residents were ordered not to leave their own houses.
At 1 p.m., the hateful march of 1,200 Orangemen arrived up Garvaghy Road--surrounded by police and armored vehicles. People bravely made their way to a parking lot close to the road, where they pounded pots, pans, and garbage-can lids to make a deafening protest noise as the Orangemen passed. The frightened looks of these reactionaries showed that they understood that the residents of Garvaghy Road were still defiant.
After the Orange Order passed, the occupying police left with them. Masked youths came out of the houses to send the cops off in a hail of rocks. According to An Phoblacht/Republican News over 16 people and 11 police were injured during the day of clashes.
Some people in Northern Ireland had thought that Britain's newly elected Labor government might not be as closely allied with the fascistic "Orange" forces as Britain's previous Conservative government. Such hopes lay broken on Garvaghy Road. After this outrage in Portadown, Nationalist people launched a powerful wave of resistance that has rocked Northern Ireland.
The following account appeared in An Phoblacht/Republican News (July 10): "Hundreds of masked youths placed barricades across all the major road arteries and engaged scores of RUC and British army patrols during some of the heaviest rioting seen in North Belfast for 20 years. Areas such as Ardoyne, New Lodge, and the Bone saw sustained petrol bomb attacks leaving several armoured personnel carriers burnt out... In scenes reminiscent of the Hunger Strike period of 1981 crates of petrol bombs were ferried up to be hurled at plastic bullet firing RUC squads. These were forced to retreat in many areas such was the ferocity of the attacks. In some cases whole stretches of what once were busy roads were abandoned by the British forces unable to contain the determined rioters. The Oldpark area resembled a war zone with bed springs being pressed into service as makeshift shields to protect the nationalist youths. Hundreds of plastic bullets were fired, roadways littered with their shell cases. Late on Sunday evening one RUC armoured vehicle got impaled on iron pilings being used as a barricade, its crew forced to flee as petrol bombs zeroed in. Following intense petrol bombing the RUC and British patrols left the streets.... Shielded from fusillades of plastic bullets behind hijacked vehicles the youths kept up their attacks for a three-day period."
At mass meetings, the Nationalist people spoke out in support of the youth. "Some of them are not angels," remarked one woman, "but they are a credit to our communities for taking on the might of the British Army and RUC and forcing them out of our districts, just like they did back in the early 1970s."
As we go to press, the Orange Order cancelled plans to hold new marches through Nationalist areas on July 12.
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