City braces itself for marchers

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EVEN THE name seems to echo the sectarian divide: Londonderry for Protestants, Derry to Catholics. Today, the city will be the setting for one of the most controversial of loyalist marches. What happens today will be a crucial indication of whether Ulster can break out of its cycle of bitterness and destruction.

The Apprentice Boys' parade at Londonderry has, over the years, become synonymous with confrontation and strife. Other Protestant celebrations have also sparked trouble in a city with a three-quarters Catholic population.

Last December disturbances following the "Lundy" celebrations cost the city more than pounds 4 million; the previous year a man was killed in a violent reaction to the Orange Order parade at Drumcree.

This year, however, has seen an historic compromise between the Apprentice Boys and the residents of the nationalist Bogside area.

Of an anticipated 15,000 marchers, just 13 will be allowed to lay a wreath at the cenotaph in the city centre, and one band will accompany the others as they walk along the city walls to commemorate the lifting of the siege of Derry in 1689.

Politicians, church leaders and the Royal Ulster Constabulary are keeping fingers crossed that the potentially volatile event will pass off peacefully. Its timing could not have been much worse. Feelings are still running high after the mayhem sparked by the Orange stand-off at Drumcree which led to the death of three young Catholic boys.

The march also comes just 24 hours after Tommy McMahon, the IRA bomber who murdered Lord Mountbatten, was freed in the Republic, and more than 400 terrorist prisoners in the North, including convicted murderers, received paperwork which could allow them to go free in a matter of months, if not weeks.

In Londonderry, two Catholic brothers were shot last week in what the police say is a resurgence of sectarian violence, and there is growing tension as Protestants decry the parade compromise as yet another example of surrender and denial of their rights.

Strenuous efforts have been made to keep the lid on trouble with a series of pageants and shows in Londonderry for both communities. Alistair Simpson, and Donncha MacNiallais, the leaders of the Bogside Residents Group, both asked yesterday for troublemakers to stay away.

Mr Simpson said: "We are looking forward to a peaceful and enjoyable day. For anyone who wishes to be in the city for any other reason, we would ask them to stay at home. Confrontation is not welcome."

Mr MacNiallais added: "The eyes of the world will be on Derry this weekend, and the nationalist community must continue to demonstrate the firm discipline and resolve which it has shown since the start of the present Drumcree crisis."

Out in the streets, however, the mood was one of caution and suspicion rather than euphoria. Londonderry has seen some of the worst excesses of the troubles - the brutal suppression of the civil rights marches, Bloody Sunday and a ferocious IRA bombing campaign.

At the fashionable Strand Bar, Catholic Paul Corrigan, 29, said: "We are fairly cynical around here. It's very pleasing, of course, to see the Apprentice Boys talking to the Bogside Residents. But how much control will they have over the hangers-on? There will be all these feeder marches coming into Derry and some of them will be looking for a fight."

Across the River Foyle on the loyalist areas of the East Bank, the march is not viewed as an historical curiosity but a matter of tradition and heritage. At 61, Alex Smith has seen many Apprentice Boys parades and believes the opposition to them has been fermented by Nationalists.

He said: "In the past we used to have Roman Catholics and Protestants watching the celebrations together, and then drinking and singing together afterwards.

"The trouble is created by Sinn Fein and their agitators. We, the Protestant people, are once again being stopped from doing what is our right. It is shameful."