TONY Blair told the Orange Order to call for an immediate end to the bitter Drumcree dispute hours after the deaths of three young brothers in a UVF firebomb attack.
The call came during talks between the then Labour prime minister and Grand Master Robert Saulters.
It followed the blaze that killed Richard (10) Mark, nine, and Jason Quinn, eight, in their home in Ballymoney, Co Antrim on July 12 1998.
The details are revealed in newly released files by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.
The exchange was outlined in a letter Mr Blair’s chief of staff to a senior official in the Northern Ireland Office.
There was widespread shock following the loyalist attack in which the three children died.
It happened amid tensions linked to the parading flashpoint at Drumcree when Orangemen were banned by the newly established Parades Commission from walking the nationalist Garvaghy Road.
Thousands of Orangemen and loyalists were occupying the area around Drumcree church from July 5, insisting they would not leave until the parade, which resulted in violence in previous years, was permitted.
Jonathan Powell’s letter to the NIO official revealed that Mr Blair said it was “essential” for the Orange Order to call on the Portadown District to leave the hill and allow dialogue to take place.
Mr Powell said: “Robbie Saulters said the Orange Order would like a guarantee of a march this year… The prime minister said that to be blunt it was essential they come off the hill today.”
“If the Orange Order leaders did not call for this it would reflect very badly on the whole Orange Order. Feelings in other parts of the community were very high. He could not give a guarantee that the march would go down….” the letter said.
“Saulters then asked if the prime minister could abolish the Parades Commission. (He) said this was not possible either. We would work to avoid the problems we had encountered this year, but we could not suddenly announce the abolition.. in the aftermath of this awful tragedy.”
Protesters remained at Drumcree on the Twelfth but their numbers started to dwindle in the days after. Orangemen have not been permitted to parade down Garvaghy Road from 1998.
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