Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Why Apprentice Boys' support for 'shared city' is proof of distance it has travelled in Londonderry

The DUP, meanwhile, like the Bourbons of old, have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing, says Alban Maginness

DUP leader Arlene Foster speaks to the media after meeting with the PSNI last week
DUP leader Arlene Foster speaks to the media after meeting with the PSNI last week
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

At 2.30pm on August 12, 1969, at Waterloo Place in Derry, a marble was fired by a middle-aged man at the assembled RUC lines. From this small beginning there developed a riot which enveloped the city and dramatically changed the history of Northern Ireland.

That day 50 years ago marked the outbreak of the political violence that we have understatedly called the Troubles.

The event that triggered that violence was the annual Apprentice Boys march in Derry to commemorate the relief of the siege in 1689.

This parade was always bitterly resented by the majority Catholic people of Derry. The march by the Apprentice Boys symbolised the historic defeat of Irish Catholics by the Protestant William of Orange and was regarded as a blatant display of Orange triumphalism.

Little wonder, then, given the historic divisions within Derry and given the steady increase of political tensions throughout 1969, that the situation boiled over, culminating in widespread rioting and the chaotic response of an incompetent and politically partisan RUC.

The intense rioting in Derry spread to Belfast, where there were systematic attacks by extreme Protestants on the Catholic areas of the Lower Falls and Ardoyne.

The RUC, either through negligence or political bias, failed to prevent these attacks and, indeed, were responsible for civilian deaths themselves.

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Such was the intensity and the scale of unprecedented deaths and massive destruction that historian Eamon Phoenix described it as "having brought the north to the very brink of catastrophe".

So much so, that the Westminster Government was forced to intervene and send in the Army in order to stop the sectarian conflict getting completely out of hand.

This was a defining moment in our tragic history, for it released the savage dogs of naked sectarianism and undermined the power of the unionist government in the old Stormont parliament.

If we fast-forward to August 10, 2019, incredibly, we have a major row over the wearing of offensive 'Soldier F' and Parachute Regiment badges on the uniforms of the Clyde Valley Flute Band from Larne during the course of the annual Apprentice Boys parade in Derry.

To wear such badges was grossly provocative to Catholics, not least because of the fact that the Bloody Sunday massacre took place a short distance from where the parade was actually taking place.

It is hard to understand - given our terrible history of hurt and injury to one another - that any right-thinking bandsman would want to insult members of the Catholic community by wearing such badges.

For many years now the Derry parade has been an exemplary model for parading agreement between the loyal orders and the Bogside Residents' Association.

This approach put an end to bitter and often violent disputes over parading by the loyal orders in Derry.

The Apprentice Boys of Derry - to their great credit - led the way and reached an agreement with their Catholic neighbours and gave the city peace for several years.

This model has been rightly held up as an example of what can be achieved through sustained inter-community dialogue.

For a long time the parade in Derry has been seen as a colourful cultural event, reflecting the city's history. The governor of the Apprentice Boys Graham Stenhouse bluntly acknowledged that the disputed emblems "may have caused upset to many in the nationalist community".

He said that the parade should in no way be used as a means to "heighten tensions in a shared city".

This telling use of the heartening phrase "shared city" highlights the distance that the Apprentice Boys have travelled in Derry.

Mr Stenhouse added: "We wish to continue this dialogue to ensure goodwill and understanding prevails. We also wish to ensure our city continues to lead in promoting reconciliation and is a model of respect to all communities."

For them, their parade was not about triumphalism or provocation, but about celebrating their cherished history in a civilised and decorous way. They genuinely want to live in a shared city in peace and harmony with their Catholic neighbours.

Given the mature and sensitive way in which the Apprentice Boys dealt with this potentially damaging issue, it is deeply saddening to witness DUP leader Arlene Foster pandering to the hardline elements within loyalism by supporting the bandsmen's wilful behaviour.

Instead of supporting the Apprentice Boys' sensible position, Mrs Foster went to the trouble of going to PSNI headquarters in order to complain that the police had acted wrongly against the bandsmen.

Like the Bourbons of old, the DUP have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.

Belfast Telegraph

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