Marchers leave Ulster in peace

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The Independent Online
Northern Ireland breathed a collective sigh of relief yesterday as the last major weekend of the summer marching season passed off with only minor incidents rather than the widespread disturbances which had been feared.

Last night, a stand-off had developed in the Co Londonderry village of Bellaghy where Catholic locals objected to a Loyalist march routed through their area.

But in Londonderry itself, where a 10,000-strong Apprentice Boys parade had been the focus of most concern, there were only isolated problems following the partial success of negotiations involving loyalists, Catholic residents and church leaders.

The city had been braced for trouble as tension rose in the wake of last month's protracted stand-off involving the Orange Order and the Royal Ulster Constabulary at Drumcree, Co Armagh. In the event it was clear that both the Apprentice Boys and the nationalists, including Sinn Fein, were anxious to avert trouble.

In Catholic areas of Londonderry, members of Sinn Fein, including former prisoners, could be seen shepherding youths away from potential confrontations with the RUC or loyalists.

Violence was mostly confined to isolated incidents on the fringes of the large procession, although there were also skirmishes in a number of towns arising from smaller parades.

The most serious episode came when, according to the RUC, a nationalist crowd threw "hundreds" of petrol bombs at a Londonderry police station. Police fired plastic bullets in return, but there were no injuries.

An unusual feature in several places was that negotiations were held between Protestant marching organisations and Catholic residents. The series of negotiations in Londonderry between the Apprentice Boys and local nationalists represented the first time that such channels were publicly opened. This was welcomed by nationalists and republicans as an important precedent. Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness commended the Apprentice Boys, saying, "These events show what is possible when dialogue takes place."

In Belfast yesterday one of the main republican marches of the year passed off peacefully when several thousand people walked down the Falls Road to the city centre.

The turning-point in a tense weekend came at lunchtime on Saturday in Londonderry, when, after a lengthy meeting, leaders of the Apprentice Boys decided to abide by a Government decision which banned them from a section of the walls overlooking the Bogside.

The organisation's governor, Alistair Simpson, stood on the city walls and announced: "Attempts to stifle our culture and heritage will not succeed. We will walk with dignity and pride, making this event the best ever. This association wishes to state our intention to walk these city walls at a time of our own choosing."

The decision to accept the ban defused tension. Mr Simpson was later praised by many sources for his part in the events of the day.

He himself praised "those in the Bogside who stayed away, allowing us our celebration. I must admire those people who let us have our civil and religious liberties. It's the Government who tried to stop us."

Leading article, page 11