Police drawing up contingency plans to deal with serious disorder in Northern Ireland asked whether officers could use state-owned diggers to clear rioters’ blockades.
Archive files from the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland reveal that the Royal Ulster Constabulary also requested chainsaw training for officers who might have to remove trees and other debris from roads.
The requests were made to Northern Ireland government departments as the RUC planned for potential violence around the 1997 Drumcree parading flashpoint in Portadown.
The two previous summers had witnessed serious disorder linked to the dispute over whether Orangemen should continue to be permitted to march through a nationalist area on the Garvaghy Road.
The RUC, Northern Ireland Office and the various departments in Northern Ireland were all involved in discussions on how to avoid “Drumcree III” in July 1997.
A document from the files of the Central Secretariat in Northern Ireland outlined the RUC’s wishlist.
“In the light of last year’s serious public disorder, the RUC are reviewing their operational plans against the possibility of a ‘Drumcree III’,” it stated.
“As part of this exercise they wish to ascertain the current state of contingency planning within government against the same scenario, and to make sure that adequate co-ordination arrangements between themselves, the NIO and NI departments are in place.
“Their objective (like ours) is to limit the extent of any disruption and to ensure that the province’s normal industrial, commercial and social life is maintained to the greatest extent possible.”
It said the RUC wanted to know government plans for clearing roads and providing temporary accommodation for people.
Police also asked for an inventory of state-owned heavy lifting equipment that could “remove trees placed across the road”.
It wanted to know where JCBs and other plant vehicles were stored, as well as light equipment such as chainsaws.
The document said the RUC also asked “whether NI departments would be willing to ask their staff to use this equipment at the RUC’s request, or under police direction” or “whether NI departments would, in worst-case scenario, be prepared to allow the RUC to use this equipment”.
Minutes from another meeting involving representatives from the NIO and several NI departments highlighted the potential problems if their employees were called upon to use the equipment amid disorder.
“The use of departmental staff to operate the equipment was more problematic,” they stated.
“Staff were unlikely to be willing to be involved, for example, in clearing barricades from roads, even with RUC protection, and were likely to argue that their contracts did not require them to do so. One option, however, would be to use any staff who volunteered.”
However, minutes from a further meeting a month later, on June 9, indicates that the police had revised their position with regard to accessing equipment.
“The RUC were no longer asking for the use of DoE (Department of Environment) equipment, except in extremis and so still wanted to know where it was located,” the minutes recorded.
The document added that the police still wanted to get officers trained in using chainsaws.
It said the issue was going to be passed to the chief forestry officer to arrange the details and decide whether the training could be conducted at Pomeroy, Co Tyrone, or in Great Britain.