Londonderry pulls back from brink

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The Independent Online
Londonderry appeared to pull back from the brink yesterday, when the huge Protestant Apprentice Boys march passed off without serious violence.

Fears that the 12,000-strong march would try to parade along a stretch of city wall overlooking the Catholic Bogside area and cordoned off by the RUC proved unfounded. But the city was still tense last night, with sporadic skirmishes along the wall.

Speculation that a major assault on the walls would be made was allayed at midday by the Apprentice Boys governor, Alastair Simpson.

Shortly before the parade was due to set off, he told local Loyalists: "We urge our members and supporters to remain calm. This association wishes to state its firm intention to walk these city walls at a time of our own choosing."

This seemed to satisfy the Loyalists, and the bulk of the parade - one of the biggest turnouts in recent years - passed through the streets peacefully.

As the afternoon wore on, however, small groups of drunken Loyalists hurled bottles and stones at the RUC officers lined up along the wall. At least five men were held, but released with a caution.

The Bogsiders, who had been planning a counter-rally just 300 yards away from the city's Diamond area where the Apprentice Boys marched by, called it off.

A nationalist rally had met in the Bogside at Free Derry Corner at two o'clock. Several thousand republicans soon surged up the hill to the city wall when it appeared that the RUC were seeking to seal off a gateway. Stones were thrown over the wall and the mood was tense.

The leader of the Bogside Residents Group, Donncha Macnillais, expressed anger with the RUC. "They have provoked the situation to the extent that we fear it's going to be very difficult to control," he said. "We are not sure if we can hold it."

But no full-scale clash took place as Apprentice Boys began returning to their homes elsewhere in the province. The decision to allow five members on to the wall briefly at 9am to erect Unionist flags was felt to have gone some way to preventing it.

SDLP leader John Hume, the city's MP, said dialogue had paid off. "The mood of the city was powerful and strong. It was totally positive and it's a lesson all parts of Northern Ireland should learn. Dialogue is the only way forward."