As you drive up to Belfast from the Republic, a winding road takes you into Drumcree, a short distance from Portadown. There, along a 'blink and you'll miss it' turnoff, is the small Church of the Ascension, or the church of the Parish of Drumcree. To look at it, it's just another pretty Irish Church.
Yet this is the scene of a yearly conflict between Orangemen and local Catholics that is linked to violence and suffering due to the positioning of the Protestant Church and the Catholic stronghold areas behind it.
Each year during the marching season, the Orange Order seeks to follow the same route it has done so for decades, which happens to include the nationalist section of Drumcree. The march begins with a service at the Church, then a march that returns along the Catholic Garvaghy Road. The fight to ban the march has been ongoing, with the Orangemen stating that tradition should allow it (having followed this path from 1807 onwards) and the Catholic and nationalist locals arguing that to march through their areas is pure provocation.
How serious was the issue? During the years of 1995-2000, each July saw Drumcree in a state of near-war, with the British army and local police having to attend. At one point there were concerns that Drumcree would be the flashpoint of conflict that would end the blossoming peace process that cumulated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The tensions heightened in '95 and '96, when the march was halted to to residential protests, ending in violence from both sides. The presence of Ian Paisley and David Trimble in '95 , where a rally was held on behalf of the Orange Order only inflamed tensions. The rally led to the Orangemen being allowed through, provided they marched in silence in order to cause as small an amount of trouble as possible. Paisley and Trimble led the march themselves, and their joined, clasped hands raised at the end outraged nationalists, who saw it as a gesture of triumph- despite Trimble's claims that it was merely to prevent Paisley from gaining all the media focus. In '97, the march was allowed to go ahead in order to prevent terror threats against nationalist members of the community, with the Catholic area of town being placed in lockdown by the police.
1998 saw another outbreak of trouble. The passing of the Public Processions Act created a commission who were charged with approving the paths parades in Northern Ireland would take- When, in June of 1998, the commission banned the parade from Garvaghy Road, outrage from Orangemen followed, leading to the deployment of over 2000 police and military troops to nearby Portadown. These troops barricaded the entrance to the Catholic region of town and stationed themselves outside Drumcree Church, yet the Orangemen marched there and stated that they wouldn't depart until they were allowed to continue along their traditional path. Tensions and fear heightened when loyalists released a statement suggesting that anyone driving to the barricaded Gavaghy Road from July 10th would be murdered.
The result was violence. Catholic areas across Northern Ireland were 'occupied' by Loyalists and Orangemen. In Lurgan, Catholic homes were firebombed troops stationed at Drumcree were fired upon. Over 2500 incidents of violence occurred at this time relating to paramilitary and Orangeman violence.
A few days ago, speaking to a man who had endured the worst of the Troubles, I was told "The one thing that sets everyone off is if people hurt kids. That's all it would take."
The impact of violence on children was certainly seen firsthand during the Drumcree Conflict, when, on the 12th of July, a petrol bombing in Ballymoney led to three young boys aged between 8 and 10 being burnt to death in their home. The confusion of the matter was that the mother of the boys was a Catholic, but the home was in a Protestant area. The UVF, a loyalist paramilitary, were responsible.
While Paisley denounced the murders as having 'stained Protestantism', he was still led to point out that he felt the IRA had done worse things.
Since the fears in 2000 that NeoNazis from Europe would infiltrate the parade, the tensions have remained, although not to the level of violence seen previously. The parade commission continues to ban the marchers from Garvaghy Road and Catholics continue to be intimidated from living in the area. The calmer years since 2001 have been linked to a general decline in Orange Order membership in the area.
The Church was silent and peaceful when I visited, there were no signs of the trenches and violence that had existed there only a decade before. The road leading down to the Catholic area was deserted.