Violence-Free March Helps N. Ireland Step to New Beat
ABOUT-FACE FOR PEACE?
Firm government action, dialogue between opposed religious groups, and the presence of the world's media enabled Northern Ireland to avert widespread violence this past weekend. As the province's turbulent "marching season" neared its end, serious confrontation in the city of Londonderry between Protestant and Catholic groups was headed off.
Police said there had been a few incidents early on Sunday morning. But the trouble, police reported, was relatively minor and nothing compared to the violence that swept Northern Ireland last month in the wake of a march by the Protestant Orange Order at Portadown.
On that occasion attempts at mediation between Protestants and Catholics broke down. But the mood was different in Londonderry this weekend.
John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the city's member of parliament, said yesterday that dialogue between sectarian communities had paid off. "Derry wanted to present a positive image to the world," Mr. Hume said. "We wanted a peaceful weekend. It is a lesson all parts of Northern Ireland should learn."
The most likely flash point had been a planned march on Saturday by members of the Apprentice Boys, a Protestant group, around Londonderry's ancient wall.
The annual march marks the anniversary of the 1689 "Siege of Derry" when 13 apprentice boys slammed the city gates on the advancing army of the deposed Catholic king, James II.
But ahead of the planned march, Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew ordered the stretch of the wall skirting the Bogside to be blocked off.
After security forces with armored cars blocked the wall, Hume and other nationalist leaders held behind-the-scenes talks with the leader of the Apprentice Boys, Alistair Simpson. Formal negotiations appeared to break down, but it was later reported that an informal dialogue between the two sides continued.
John Kerr, a former mayor of Londonderry, said the willingness by both sides to back off represented "a new dawn" in relations between the two religious communities. "The eyes of the world were on us. We had a lot to lose, but we have gained a lot of respect," he said.
There can be little doubt that a large presence of the international media in Londonderry helped to persuade both sides to enter into dialogue and seek compromises instead of confrontation. Catholic and Protestant alike wanted to avoid besmirching their own image in the eyes of the world.
Police described the atmosphere in Londonderry yesterday as "still tense but under control." Speaking for the Apprentice Boys, Mr. Simpson declared, "Attempts to stifle our culture and our heritage will not succeed. It is our intention to walk these city walls at a time of our own choosing." Officials in Sir Patrick's office, however, said the part of the wall overlooking the Bogside would probably remain blocked off until the end of the month. By then the "marching season" will be over.