LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland (AP) — Eight months ago President Clinton told a jubilant crowd of Protestants and Catholics that he saw Londonderry as “a peaceful city; a safe city; a hopeful city.”
Back then, Londonderry was a town hoping it was free of the hatred that boiled over in 1969, when Catholic protesters tried to stop a Protestant march along the city wall and then fought with police for three days before British troops intervened.
Today, soldiers and barbed wire top the limestone wall encircling the city — put there to enforce the British government’s decision to stop the very same march.
Londonderry is back to the familiar landscape of siege and sacrifice, fleeting hopes and unforgiven horrors. And once again in Northern Ireland, those who remember their past too well seem condemned to repeat it.
“It seems like a million years since Bill Clinton was here, telling us we’d turned the corner. His scriptwriter didn’t tell us it was a cul-de-sac,” said Sarah Maguire, behind the cash register of her shop within the town walls.
On Saturday, the Apprentice Boys, the town’s Protestant fraternal order, plans to march on top of those walls. The procession will commemorate a potent event in Protestant folklore: Londonderry’s resistance against a 17th-century siege by the forces of the deposed English Catholic king, James II.
But a critical, quarter-mile stretch of the wall overlooks the Catholic Bogside district, and residents vowed to block the march when it reached their neighborhood.
To them, the march is a demonstration of Protestant dominance in a town where Catholics long were denied equal rights in housing, employment and political power, even though they are a majority of residents.
A similarly contentious Protestant march through a Catholic neighborhood in the city of Portadown touched off widespread violence in July. Anxious to avert riots, the British government on Wednesday banned the Apprentice Boys from marching on the section of the wall in Bogside.
Protestants accused the British government Thursday of caving in to Catholic threats, but Sir Patrick Mayhew, the minister responsible for governing Northern Ireland, stood his ground in an hourlong meeting in Belfast with Apprentice Boys leaders.
Catholic protesters, meanwhile, confirmed they intended to march into central Londonderry on Friday night — and would stage a second march Saturday afternoon while the Apprentice Boys were still marching.
As many as 15,000 Apprentice Boys and their supporters are expected at the march, which for them recalls the town’s triumph after a 105-day siege by the army of James II.
Protestants draw from bitter folklore of the 1689 siege — their hungry forebears shouting “No Surrender!” from the ramparts while English naval forces idled for months on the nearby River Foyle.
The Apprentice Boys are named for 13 young apprentices who took the initiative of closing the settlement’s gates as James’ forces approached.
“An Apprentice Boy knows better than to trust an Englishman. They’ll always betray us to the enemy when it suits them, as they have again this week,” said Alistair Simpson, leader of the Protestant group.
In the Fountain, the last Protestant neighborhood in central Londonderry, residents have metal grills over their windows. Many said they felt pressure to move across the river, joining 10,000 other Protestants who have left since the 1970s.
“The Roman Catholics have got rid of the Apprentice Boys parade. They’ll want rid of the Fountain –we’re next on their list,” said Rosemary Holland, who, like many in the district, sent her four children to stay with relatives outside the area.
Catholics in Londonderry expect violence this weekend, too. They recall a very different town — one where Protestant politicians and police discriminated against them, where police arrested their friends without charge, where soldiers murdered their neighbors.