Peace reigns as Apprentice Boys march atop Derry's walls

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The Independent Online

A feeder march to the controversial Apprentice Boys parade in Londonderry has passed off peacefully, raising hopes that today's potential flaspoint may yet fail to ignite despite threats of trouble.

A feeder march to the controversial Apprentice Boys parade in Londonderry has passed off peacefully, raising hopes that today's potential flaspoint may yet fail to ignite despite threats of trouble.

Catholic hard-liners in the nearby Bogside district had agreed beforehand to stay away as about 300 Apprentice Boys in suits, bowler hats and purple vestments marched along the wall that rings central Londonderry. They were led by a red-coated flute band from Scotland that played "Abide With Me," as they passed nearest the Bogside below.

More than 15,000 Loyalists from all over Northern Ireland gathered in the city for a bigger afternoon parade into Londonderry's central square and back across the Foyle River to the city's predominantly Protestant east side.

The annual gathering commemorates the 1689 survival of Londonderry's Protestant garrison during a 105-day siege by forces loyal to Catholic King James II, a seminal event in Protestant folklore. Before the marching began, a troupe of amateur actors in period costumes re-enacted the moment when English supply ships and reinforcements sailed up the Foyle to save the starving Protestants.

But a bomb threat on the main Belfast-to-Londonderry rail line delayed the arrival of several thousand Apprentice Boys and band members to Northern Ireland's second-largest city.

Police said they received several telephoned warnings late Friday claiming that a bomb had been left somewhere on the line, but didn't immediately find any devices during Saturday searches.

Two months ago, IRA dissidents opposed to the outlawed group's 1997 cease-fire blew up a section of the main Belfast-Dublin rail line. On Thursday night police in Londonderry tried to intercept a van carrying about 500 pounds (200 kgs) of homemade explosive into the city, but the vehicle sped back to the nearby border with the Irish Republic and was abandoned.

Cathal Crumley, a former IRA prisoner who in June was elected as Derry's first mayor to come from the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party, said practically nobody in the city supported the dissidents. "They ought to disband immediately because they have no credibility and nobody wants them," he said.

And Derry's long-dominant Catholic politician, SDLP leader John Hume, condemned the dissidents as "fascists" who were trying "to subvert the will of the Irish people."

Hume, a moderate who in 1996 began brokering negotiations between the Apprentice Boys and Bogsiders that produced this week's accord, said most Catholics were prepared to accept Protestant parades so long as they took place with the consent of Catholic residents.

But people remained fearful that the city's legions of rowdy youths might attack units of the RUC after the parade. Rioting by Catholic youths following Apprentice Boys demonstrations in 1998 and 1999 caused more than £10m in damage, mostly to the Catholic-owned businesses that now dominate central Londonderry.

"We appeal to young people within the (Irish) nationalist community not to be provoked into confrontation," said the Bogside protest leader, Donncha MacNiallais, a former IRA prisoner.

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