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Catholics Accept Protestant March

August 11, 2000

LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland (AP) _ In a sign that talking works, leaders in this mostly Roman Catholic city say they’ll accept a march Saturday by Londonderry’s main British Protestant group.

The Apprentice Boys of Derry parade atop the city’s 17th-century battlements has frequently provoked militant Catholic opposition. But this week both sides talked through their differences _ guided by the hope of inspiring compromise in other Northern Ireland flashpoints.

``I look forward to days when we don’t even need to have talks, when everybody can be happy that there’s a parade and that everybody can enjoy it,″ said Luke Hasson, a Catholic businessman whose department store overlooks the Diamond, Londonderry’s central square.

But in an indication that not everyone wants compromise, police said Friday they thwarted apparent plans by Irish Republican Army dissidents to detonate a bomb in Londonderry before the march.

A van packed with homemade explosives came across a police checkpoint in the city Thursday night, then sped into the Republic of Ireland, where it was abandoned. It contained some 500 pounds of explosives.

The Diamond has been a focal point for confrontations between Protestants and Catholics since the 19th century, particularly when the Apprentice Boys march.

The group takes its name from the 13 youthful tradesmen who bolted the city gates in the face of forces loyal to James II, a Catholic king who was trying to retain power after losing his British throne to a Protestant. Londonderry’s starving Protestant garrison survived a 105-day siege that concluded Aug. 12, 1689, when English reinforcements arrived by sea.

Since the founding of the Apprentice Boys in 1814, Catholics from the impoverished Bogside quarter outside the city walls have seen the parades as celebrating Protestant dominance.

Bogsiders’ resentment boiled over into street warfare in 1969, a pivotal moment that led Britain to deploy soldiers as peacekeepers _ and in turn encouraged Catholic hard-liners to found a ``Provisional″ IRA.

That IRA faction halted its bombing and shooting in 1997, long after destroying most Protestant-owned businesses inside Londonderry’s walls.

Today, Londonderry’s rebuilt commercial heart is in the hands of Catholic entrepreneurs and the city’s one-time IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, is education minister in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government.

Almost all the city’s Protestants have resettled across the Foyle River, far from downtown. Many return only once a year to march in their Apprentice Boys regalia.

Even that was threatened in 1995, when IRA supporters from the Bogside began trying to block the parade in a bid to force Protestants into direct negotiations. Similar tactics were used against the Orange Order, Northern Ireland’s larger Protestant fraternity.

The Orangemen, who march in July, have largely refused to negotiate with Catholic protesters, but the Apprentice Boys saw the need to talk.

``I have nothing to be ashamed of. I’m helping to bring peace to our city,″ said Apprentice Boys Governor Alistair Simpson, who has braved criticism since he agreed to discussions with Bogside leaders in 1998.

Despite talks, Catholic rioting followed Apprentice Boys demonstrations in 1998 and 1999, causing more than $15 million damage _ most of it to Catholic-owned businesses.

Unlike others in confrontation zones, Catholic moderates in Londonderry proved willing to get involved in mediation, and to apply subtle pressure on militants to back off.

``The lesson is that if you keep working, if you keep trying to see where the person across the table is coming from, bit by bit you realize that we’ve far more in common than we have in fighting each other,″ said Brendan Duddy, who oversaw negotiations in Londonderry’s Chamber of Commerce.

Simpson, in a veiled message to Orange leaders, said resolving march confrontations requires talking with opponents _ and time.

``Anybody who thinks they can go into one or two meetings and get what they want is going to be sadly disillusioned,″ said Simpson.

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