Drumcree 1997: Mo Mowlam rounded on Orangeman over Twelfth march

Northern secretary told Orange Order it was driving support for Sinn Féin and IRA

Tireless efforts by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) to avert renewed violence at Drumcree ahead of the annual Twelfth march to Portadown in 1997 are detailed in this year’s declassified files from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

In a memo to officials dated June 5th, 1997, Stephen Leech, associate director of policing and security at the NIO, asserted that “the root cause of the conflict on the Garvaghy Road [the nationalist enclave through which the annual Drumcree Orange march passed] is the profound sectarianism which is endemic in Portadown”. Leech felt the government should launch a task force linked to an economic investment package.

On July 6th, 1997, after Orangemen were permitted to march down the Garvaghy Road, widespread rioting erupted in nationalist areas. Secretary of state Mo Mowlam, who had been involved in an intensive round of meetings before the decision, confronted Orange representatives at Stormont Castle on July 7th.

‘Dire situation’

Mowlam said that the situation was “dire”. She said the whole nationalist population was very angry and some were “now looking to the IRA for protection”. Surely, after Drumcree, she begged, “number 10 district [in South Belfast] could forego their march on the Lower Ormeau Road [on July 12th] this year for the good of Ulster?”


Armagh Orangeman Dennis Watson replied that the Portadown grand master Harold Gracey “would have been lynched if he had not walked the Garvaghy Road, such was the intense feeling in loyalist circles [in Portadown]”.

At this point, another Orange representative, John McCrea, “made the mistake of saying the government should stop pandering to Sinn Féin”. According to the minutes, Mowlam “told him in no uncertain terms not to insult her or her government. There was no question of Sinn Féin entering talks without a verifiable ceasefire. But the reality was that their vote had gone up.” McCrea apologised.

In the event, the Orange Order responded to Mowlam’s pressure by agreeing to reroute four marches on the Twelfth to avoid Catholic areas, including that on the Lower Ormeau Road.