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 and 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 a reaction to the Drumcree parading dispute. It was sparked by the decision of Mo Mowlam, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to allow the Orange Order to march through the nationalist district of Portadown, County Armagh. Nationalists were outraged at the decision and by the RUC's aggressive removal of nationalist protesters who had been blocking the march.
It was the last spell of widespread violence in Northern Ireland before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. The RUC and British Army were forced 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 organisation declared its last ceasefire on 19 July.
The Orange Order is a Protestant fraternal organisation with links to unionism. It insists that it should be allowed to march its traditional route to-and-from Drumcree Church each July. It has marched this route since 1807, when the area was sparsely populated. However, today most of this route falls within the town's mainly-Catholic and Irish nationalist quarter, which is densely populated. The residents have sought to re-route the march away from this area, seeing it as "triumphalist" and "supremacist".
There have been intermittent violent clashes during the yearly parade since at least 1873. The dispute was intensified by The Troubles, which began in 1969. 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 would still be allowed to march along the other main road through the nationalist area—the Garvaghy Road—which was less-populated at the time.
Although a few years passed without serious conflict over the Drumcree parades, both sides remained unhappy with the situation. In 1995, nationalist residents formed the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition (GRRC) to try and divert the march away from Garvaghy Road. The conflict escalated that July when residents blocked Garvaghy Road for two days. Orangemen and their supporters clashed with police until the residents were persuaded to clear the road and the march went ahead.
The July 1996 march was banned by the Chief Constable, leading to large-scale protests and rioting between Orangemen, their supporters and the police. As a response to the march being banned, 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 the nationalist protesters from Garvaghy Road and forced the march through. This led to rioting in nationalist areas across Northern Ireland; one protester was crushed to death by a British Army vehicle.
July 1997 Drumcree parade
In late June 1997, Secretary of State Mo Mowlam had privately decided to let the march proceed. This was later revealed in a leaked document. 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 replied that they would make public their decision only two or three days beforehand. Earlier, Mo Mowlam had said that any decision would be released at least six days before the march. As the parade day approached, thousands of people left Northern Ireland for fear of an outbreak violence like that of July 1996.
Meanwhile, the residents coalition applied for a street festival to be held the same day as the march, but this was banned by the RUC. Women from the nationalist district instead set-up a peace camp along the Garvaghy Road. The Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) threatened to kill Catholic civilians if the march was not allowed to proceed. The Ulster Unionist Party also threatened to withdraw from the Northern Ireland peace process. On 4 July 60 families had to be evacuated from their homes on Garvaghy Road after a loyalist bomb threat.
On Sunday 6 July at 3:30am, 1500 soldiers and police moved into the nationalist area in 100 armoured vehicles and sealed-off all the roads. This led to clashes with about 300 protesters, who begun a sit-down protest on the road. The last protesters were forcibly removed from the road by 6:33am. From this point onward, all residents were prevented from leaving their housing estates and accessing the main road. As residents were unable to reach the Catholic church, the local priests were forced to hold an open-air mass in front of a line of soldiers and armoured personnel carriers. Some RUC officers claimed that the residents taunted them about the deaths of their two colleagues at Lurgan in June while shouting pro-IRA slogans. There are allegations that Rosemary Nelson, the solicitor for the residents coalition, was verbally and physically abused by the RUC. Ronnie Flanagan, then Chief Constable of the RUC, said that the decision to allow the march was taken 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. A large-scale riot developed. 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 as news from Portadown reached nationalist areas. Unionist politicians accused the IRA of starting the riots. 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. One of the first attacks took place in Coalisland, where the IRA's East Tyrone Brigade launched a gun attack on an RUC armoured vehicle besides the local Army/RUC barracks; a female officer from Portadown was badly wounded. Some sources fixed the date of the attack on 5 July.
In Belfast, a lone IRA member with an AK-47 opened-fire on an RUC checkpoint at Lower Ormeau Road. Five rounds hit an APC that was parked on the Ormeau Bridge. The attack was recorded by a BBC television crew. Later that evening, shots were fired at an armoured patrol on Newtownards Road, a bomb was thrown at an RUC base in North Belfast, and in South Belfast, an IRA unit prevented a riot squad from entering the Markets area after firing 20 rounds at them. That night, several British Army patrols were harassed by gunfire in North Belfast. An armoured vehicle was set on fire at Brompton Park in Ardoyne, according to republican sources. Another one was burnt-out on Antrim Road. Late that evening in the Oldpark area, an RUC landrover became stuck in a barricade made of iron pilings and its crew had to flee when it was attacked with petrol bombs. Rioters using petrol bombs in Short Strand forced the RUC to close an access road to the M3 motorway.
On Sunday evening, a 14-year-old boy and 13-year-old girl were shot by RUC plastic bullets in the Lenadoon area of West Belfast. The boy was struck in the head and spent three days in a coma. The girl was walking along Stewartstown Road with friends when she was struck in the face. According to An Phoblacht, there was no rioting at the time and the RUC had "opened fire on groups of young people returning home from a disco".
On Sunday night, there was violence at the interface on Lanark Way which links the loyalist Shankill Road and the republican Springfield Road. Stones, bricks and bottles were hurled across the peace line. 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 of Strand Road. Martin McGuinness addressed the crowd, calling on nationalists elsewhere to take to the streets to demand "justice and equality" and "stand up for their rights". Although the protesters returned to the Bogside peacefully, there was violence in the city center.
At Butcher Gate, there were clashes between nationalist youths and the RUC. 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. Downtown Derry was sealed off by the RUC and the British Army, exception made of the accesses via Shipquay and Ferryquay Gates.
- County Tyrone
Besides the shooting of an RUC armoured vehicle in Coalisland, mentioned above, an Orange Order hall was set on fire in Dungannon, while nationalist residents forced their way through the RUC lines to stop an Orangemen parade in Pomeroy.
- Armagh city
In Armagh, hundreds attended a protest rally at The Shambles. Later, the RUC and British Army set-up roadblocks on entrances to the town center 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.
Monday 7 July
By 7 July, there were over 100 people injured, six of them in serious condition. The RUC stated that 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. At the Larnak Way interface, West Belfast, loyalists tried to enter the nationalist area at 3:00 a.m. and a 14-year-old Protestant boy was shot in the shoulder. One source reported that 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 an RUC squadron on his way home from the Upper 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. Fourteen years later, an inquest 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 RUC and British Army moved the protesters away from the parade route. Martin McGuinness was struck in the head with a baton while giving an interview nearby.
Newry was declared "impassable" by the Automobile Association. A shopping center 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.
Buildings were set on fire in downtown Derry and a number of vehicles were hijacked. An Orange Order hall was set on fire at Newtownhamilton in south County Armagh. Four other halls suffered the same fate in Cookstown, Beragh, Sixmilecross and Ballycastle.
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. On Crumlin Road, there was a shootout between IRA members and an RUC mobile patrol, without casualties from either side. Some time later, a rocket attack took place on Hallidays Road, in the New Lodge area. Also on Crumlin Road, an IRA volunteer fired 15 shots at a British soldier who was engaging protesters with plastic bullets. According to a republican report, this action was recorded by an independent television crew. A single shot was fired at an RUC officer on Alliance Avenue and several minutes later there was another gunfight between the IRA and RUC on Oldpark Road. In the Ardoyne area of North Belfast, the IRA allegedly shot two loyalist men who were throwing petrol bombs at nationalist homes. New Barnsley RUC base in West Belfast was the target of a gun and grenade attack, while an Army base at the end of Lenadoon Avenue suffered a similar assault, with 15 shots fired and an improvised grenade thrown at it. On 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. Meanwhile, in West Belfast, petrol bombs were thrown at RUC vehicles. A passing 11-year-boy suffered severe burns when he was accidentally 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 when 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. Residents accused the security forces of verbal abuse. At the same time, two young sisters were hospitalised after allegedly being beaten by RUC officers in the Drumbeg area of Craigavon, County Armagh. The alleged assault happened after the officers spotted one of the girls filming them while they were beating a young boy. 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 shot Protestants if the parade in Belfast was allowed to go ahead, while the LVF vowed to shot people in the Republic if the marches were stopped. 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 the Suffolk area of 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 County 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 and orangeman Bill Hoey "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 that the Orange Order was allowed to parade through nationalist areas around Drumcree.
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 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.
- 1969 Northern Ireland riots
- Drumcree conflict
- Chronology of Provisional Irish Republican Army actions (1990-1999)
- David Rowlands – Military Artist
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- Rioting continues in Northern Ireland by Shawn Pogatchnik. Associated press, 8 July 1997
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- The Last Gunman by Brendan Murphy
- ITN News report about the riots (6 July 1997) on YouTube
- Another news report about the riots (7 July 1997) on YouTube