The recent Apprentice Boys parade through Londonderry’s city centre may have again raised the bar of expectation in the city.
Over the past three years or so, the marches have been relatively peaceful, usually only being spoiled by minor disturbances late in the afternoon. It had become almost a tradition for rival crowds of youths wearing Rangers and Celtic shirts to gather on either side of Ferryquay Street, close to the entrances of the busy Richmond and Foyleside shopping centres.
And it was just as traditional for some disturbance to erupt around the nearby Diamond area in the late afternoon after the main parade had ended. To their credit these stores have tried to remain open as long as possible in recent years, though many other city centre shops simply pulled down the shutters on the Friday and left them that way on Saturday in the belief that trouble was inevitable.
But those minor disturbances were a far cry from the serious rioting that saw the city centre wrecked in yesteryear, causing millions of pounds worth of damage on one occasion.
It is not so long ago that, alongside many others in a crowded Guildhall Square area, I stood and watched as Derry City Council’s peace and goodwill sign went up in flames as rioters ran amok after an Apprentice Boys’ Lundy’s Day parade in December.
It wasn’t that long ago in time, but in terms of attitudes, it now seems light years away.
Derry has set an example to other parts of Northern Ireland through the way various sections of the community have worked together to build bridges and minimise tensions during parades.
The business community played a major role in providing a forum for the Apprentice Boys and Bogside Residents’ Group to engage in talks, and the courageous stance taken by those organisations has helped to create a new climate of optimism in Derry.
Initially the groundbreaking talks were chaired by local businessmen Garvan O’Doherty and Brendan Duddy, who were prepared to, in Mr O’Doherty’s words, “put their heads on the line”.
Thanks to these efforts, and progressive policing, traders may now see benefits they could not have foreseen even five years ago.
This year’s march saw more traders than before in recent history keep their doors open. And less trouble. The president of Derry’s Chamber of Commerce, Ian Crowe, has signalled that we are moving another step closer to normality, by calling on more stores to open their doors during parades.
The Apprentice Boys Relief of Derry parade in August is by far the biggest by the loyal order anywhere in Northern Ireland.
While takings are bound to have been down, those shops that stayed open still saw some benefit.
A sample poll of businesses by the chamber indicated that those who did stay open felt it was worthwhile.
Mr Crowe said: “Looking forward to next year, hopefully more businesses will have the confidence to open.
“There’s no doubt about it, the August parade day is never going to be a normal day’s trading for businesses, but we in the chamber would encourage more businesses to remain open. We need to maximise the opportunities and minimise the negative impact.”
The fact that the main Apprentice Boys parades in August and December take place on a Saturday means that traders face a tough decision on whether to close their doors on what is normally the busiest day of the week.
The Lundy’s Day parade in December, with the festive shopping season under way, will offer traders an early chance to show whether they are taking Mr Crowe’s advice.
The Chamber president said that a prudent decision in the past would have been to keep the shutters down, but times have changed and business owners should consider the importance of a Saturday to their takings.
It’s a message that surely deserves to be heard. As confidence grows, there could be huge benefits to the city centre businesses.
The August march brings in 15,000 people to take part or spectate, and there is a potential tourism aspect to a colourful parade which could swell the numbers further.
If peace prevails — and the signs are that it will — everyone will benefit, and it would represent a great return on the visionary investment of the city’s business leaders, and the strength of character of all who took part in the process.