Belfast Telegraph

Chris McGimpsey: 'If gauntlets are thrown down over the coming weeks, they must be left where they land'

Attempts to curtail parades in Londonderry and blame it on the Apprentice Boys would help neither community in the city, argues Chris McGimpsey

The Apprentice Boys march over Craigavon Bridge in Derry
The Apprentice Boys march over Craigavon Bridge in Derry
Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson speaking in Strabane

By Chris McGimpsey

The Apprentice Boys of Derry Association was formed in the Maiden City in 1714 to co-ordinate celebrations of the Siege of Derry.

Events have continued ever since and, in 1789, centenary celebrations included a church service in St Columb's Church of Ireland Cathedral, attended by, among others, the Catholic Bishop of Derry and a number of Catholic clergy.

The formation of Apprentice Boys of Derry clubs commenced in 1814 and, by the 1870s, the organisation had expanded to such an extent that a general committee was set up and order was brought to the celebration. The Apprentice Boys, as we know them today, had been constituted.

The commemorations have evolved as society has changed, particularly in the north west.

The association has had its ups and downs and, from time to time, outside events have impacted upon the celebrations. Such was the case last Saturday.

The reaction of the PSNI to the wearing of the Parachute Regiment insignia along with the letter "F" on the shirts of the members of Clydevalley Flute Band has brought a degree of public attention to an incident that it probably does not deserve.

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The shirts were not made specifically for the parade, had been worn at other events and were thus not sported specifically to cause a public incident.

And while surrounding the band with police officers during that part of the parade which passed the illegal dissident republican gathering in the Diamond may well have been justified, the subsequent detaining of the band members, female relatives and children for over two hours out in rural Waterside some miles from the city cannot be justified.

The commentator Eamonn McCann said that people in the Bogside seemed bemused by this turn of events.

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that, once republicans in Derry became aware of the insignia, it became an emotive issue.

While the emblems are quite legal, it must be admitted the band may well have felt that they were poking republicans in the eye. And it was sure to cause offence to the families of the dead of Bloody Sunday.

That being the case, why did they bother? The answer to this question is that the unionist community is tired of a spurious equivalence being claimed between the security forces on the one hand and various terrorist groups on the other. Unionists regularly watch Sinn Fein-elected representatives address parades, which include bands whose bass drums are decorated with Armalite rifles, the names of dead IRA men and republican slogans.

The PSNI appear to take no action in these instances.

Martina Anderson's recent performance in Strabane, during her "Tiocfaidh ar la" speech, a matter of yards from where a five-month-old baby boy was murdered by an IRA bomb, is a case in point.

However, we must all try to move on.

The actions of the Clydevalley band - and the attitudes of the broader unionist community - will not alter while there is an appearance of the other community being able to get away with deeply insulting displays while it, in turn, is penalised.

Showing support for the security forces - in particular, for "Soldier F" - is a manifestation of a deeper problem.

It is for this reason that the statement by the leadership of the Apprentice Boys of Derry is to be welcomed.

Therein they stated that, if offence was caused by the band, then they are contrite.

They also restated the organisation's determination to work with all sections of the community to ensure that peaceful demonstrations continue in the future.

Derry is certainly a unique place. The 19,500 Protestants who resided on the Cityside in 1968 have shrunk to fewer than 500, as thousands felt constrained to flee.

It is for this reason that the people of the Fountain estate have a mural, which reads that, after 300 years, "West Bank Loyalists" are "Still Under Siege".

That notwithstanding, Derry has become a template for many of good practice.

It was not so long ago that bomb scares disrupted events and the atmosphere was tense, to say the least.

More recently, there is a certain feeling of well-being and an acceptance of place.

I certainly have perceived no threat for a long time. I suspect that there will now be attempts to curtail the parades and to blame it on the Apprentice Boys.

It will help neither community if this were to happen.

If gauntlets are thrown over the coming weeks, they must be left where they land.

I have no doubt that the leadership of the Apprentice Boys of Derry will not be found wanting in the future.

As for me, I shall rest up for the parade in December, when I shall once again return to Londonderry for Lundy Day and the commemoration of the heroic defence of an Irish city by Irish Protestants against a tyrannical British king.

  • Dr Chris McGimpsey is a member of the Apprentice Boys of Derry and a former Ulster Unionist member of Belfast City Council

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