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Tense weekend of rival marches begins in Northern Ireland

marchers

Catholics hold peaceful procession Friday

August 9, 1996
Web posted at: 11:40 p.m. EDT (0340 GMT)

From Correspondent Christiane Amanpour

LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- The world is anxiously watching Londonderry as a weekend of rival marches between Roman Catholics and Protestants was kicked off Friday night.

Friday's march by Catholics was calm after organizers agreed to change the parade route to avoid a Protestant neighborhood and a possible confrontation.

However, police told CNN they carried out a "controlled explosion" of a "suspicious device" found on Craigavon Bridge in Londonderry. There was no immediate word about the nature of the device, and there were no reports of injuries.

Catholic Nationalist leaders, seeking to defuse tension, decided to bypass the Fountain, one of the predominantly Catholic town's most isolated Protestant districts. In doing so, the 3,000-person march ended peacefully.

violent clashes

Catholics hope their action will produce a similar concession from Protestant groups, notably the fervently pro-British Apprentice Boys, who on Saturday will march to commemorate one of the most famous Protestant victories over Catholics. About 10,000 men are expected to participate. ( 1MB QuickTime movie of march)

The Apprentice Boys march through Northern Ireland's second largest town every year.

The Protestant fraternal organization, open to men of all ages, is named after 13 young Londonderry apprentices. In December 1688, they bolted the town's gates to defeat the approaching army of James II, the Catholic English king deposed that year in favor of the Protestant William of Orange.

Catholics also plan to march Saturday to counter the Apprentice Boys' procession.

Police protect Bogside

British troops preparing

In preparation for the Protestant march, British troops and police already have sealed off one contentious route -- a section of the old city wall overlooking the Catholic neighborhood of Bogside. Residents are covering their windows with metal cages, just in case there is trouble.

The Catholics also urged Apprentice Boys groups marching in other smaller towns Saturday to reroute parades away from Catholic areas. In return, they said they would call off a rally in the heart of the Bogside Saturday afternoon.

"It's just a nightmare, just one long nightmare," said one resident, describing the tension.

Last month, Protestant marches in a neighboring town sparked street violence that spread to Londonderry. A pub and shops were burned, and one man was killed. It revived bad memories of a conflict that many had hoped was ancient history.

For a year and a half, the people of Northern Ireland enjoyed a cease-fire, the beginning of a peace process, and a visit from President Clinton. There was hope in the air.

But, the pro-Catholic Irish Republican Army, which wants to end British rule and link up with the Irish republic, broke the cease-fire in February by bombing a London office complex.

Peace process uncertain

Their political wing, Sinn Fein, accused the British government of negotiating in bad faith. Now, Sinn Fein says, the peace process is in tatters.

residents

"Well, absolutely, it's in ruins. But we are passionately of the opinion that there needs to be a very serious attempt to reconstruct a new peace process," Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said.

"The town is too small for people not to get on, for Catholics and Protestants not to live closer together," said Protestant Jonathan Burgess.

Glenn Douherty, a Catholic, agreed. But he is worried that recent events could erase the benefits of even their fleeting peace.

"An awful lot of people have worked very hard to build trust, and I'm worried that that's just going to disappear," he said. "It's creating an awful lot of bad feeling, which I think bad feeling lasts a lot longer than good feeling does."

People say they saw the beginning of an end to their troubles. Most hope this summer's war of the marches doesn't kill off any remaining chance for peace.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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