Protestant march avoids confrontation in N. Ireland 10,000 militants decide to forgo provocative walk


LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland -- A feared confrontation in this flash-point city was narrowly avoided yesterday morning when about 10,000 Protestant militants called off plans to walk along the ancient walls overlooking a Catholic neighborhood in defiance of police orders.

Shortly after the Protestant announcement, Catholics said they were abandoning their plans for a counter protest 300 yards from where the Protestants had planned to gather.

But security remained tight as the main parade of the Protestant Apprentice Boys organization got under way in the center of the city, and leaders of the group left open the possibility of a later march on the city walls.

The annual Apprentice Boys' march commemorates a Protestant victory in 1689, when 13 Protestant apprentices stood up to the Catholic army of King James II, which was besieging Londonderry, raising a "no surrender" slogan.

The event brings Protestant militants from all over Northern Ireland to march through predominantly Catholic neighborhoods with as many as 180 music bands.

A similar march in 1969 ignited 25 years of conflict over British rule in Northern Ireland, and in recent days Catholics had threatened counter demonstrations.

Martin McGuinness, a leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, had warned that "the days of Protestants marching through our neighborhoods uninvited are numbered."

Catholic leaders had also said they would no longer put up with Protestant marches celebrating past victories over Catholics.

British police, fearing violence, had blockaded a substantial part of the route chosen by the Protestants, and army troops had set up barbed wire and steel ramparts. Security forces in armored cars and with explosive-sniffing dogs kept up patrols throughout the overwhelmingly Catholic city of 100,000.

Until early yesterday morning, the Protestant militants were adamant about going on with their march on the walls.

Catholic politicians said they would monitor the situation closely, adding that smaller marches elsewhere or, possibly, pub brawls could still lead to violence.

"Part of the problem is outsiders coming in from other places," said Robin Percival, a member of the executive committee of the Bogside Catholic residential group, who watched some of the bands parading in town.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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