Northern Ireland’s marching season passes quietly – ISN

DERRY – The third major day of Northern Ireland’s marching season passed off without any major incidents, marking a relatively trouble-free summer during what is usually a confrontational and edgy time for the province.

On Saturday, over 15,000 members of the radical Apprentice Boys association – part of the Protestant or British “loyalist/unionist” camp, as opposed to the predominantly Catholic Irish “nationalist” or “republican” side of the divide – marched through Northern Ireland’s second city, Derry, also known as Londonderry.

Northern Ireland’s three decades of civil conflict up to 1998 saw over 3,600 people killed as mostly Catholic Irish nationalists and republicans, who want Northern Ireland to merge with the Republic of Ireland to the south, faced off against mostly Protestant unionists or loyalists who want to remain part of the United Kingdom. British soldiers flooded Northern Ireland but were viewed by many nationalists as a hostile occupation force.

The bowler-hatted and orange-sashed bands marched through the city’s predominantly Loyalist Waterside before crossing the Foyle River to pass through the mainly Nationalist Cityside, where over 60 per cent of the city’s population lives. The route passes close by the Bogside area, the city’s nationalist stronghold, before turning back to cross the Foyle River via The Fountain — the main loyalist enclave on the Cityside.

A large police presence and the distraction of an ongoing youth festival in the Bogside area contributed to the incident-free march, which in previous years was marked by violent clashes in the central Diamond area of the city as the march passed close by the Bogside.

Meanwhile in Belfast, the biggest city in Northern Ireland, an earlier morning march in Belfast also passed without incident. There were fears that violence could erupt there after clashes between nationalists and the police that marred marches on 12 July. The marchers’ preferred route passes through the nationalist Ardoyne area of the city.

However, this year the Northern Ireland Parades Commission ruled that the march could not pass through Ardoyne, forcing disappointed Loyalist marchers to take a bus through the contested area before resuming their march elsewhere.

Each summer, the Parades Commission assesses the merits of contested march routes. Along with the 5 July Portadown-Garvaghy Road march, the march through the Ardoyne area is particularly contentious, as nationalist residents of these areas object to what they see as a public display of sectarianism passing through their streets.

The weekend’s only significant confrontation occurred in the County Derry town of Maghera, on the morning of the main Derry march. Nationalists overturned a bread van — setting it alight for use as a barricade along the local Apprentice Boys’ marching route. But the potentially volatile situation was defused when police persuaded the marchers to turn back. The marchers’ day was not completely ruined, however, as they later found their way to the main event in Derry

The marches commemorate the 1689 breaking of the Siege of Derry, when the Irish Catholic forces backing the ousted English king, James II, were thwarted in their attempt to take the city from its besieged Protestant Anglo-Scottish settlers — from whom many of the city’s present-day marchers are descended.

The annual marching season remains politically significant as it can heighten communal tension in Northern Ireland. As a consequence, party political activity is usually reduced over the summer, as frictions arising from the marching season can in turn stoke tensions in Northern Ireland’s stop-and-start peace process.

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