Apprentice Boys March Comes to English Village

The UK village of Stotfold, near Luton and Bedford, has become an unlikely setting for controversy over a Northen-Ireland style march to commemorate the siege of Londonderry. The Comet reports:

A CONTROVERSIAL march will go ahead despite fears of a public backlash and vigorous objections from a town council.

Luton and Bedford Browning Club and Apprentice Boys of Derry will march through the streets of Stotfold on Saturday, December 15, for the second year running.

The march marks the 319th anniversary of the shutting of the gates of Londonderry in 1688 which ignited the greatest siege in British history, the siege of Derry.

Last year marchers burned an effigy of Colonel Robert Lundy, governor of the city who attempted to persuade Londonderry’s residents to surrender to the surrounding forces of King James II and was considered a traitor by the Protestants defending the city…

In Northern Ireland marches such as this have long been associated with the assertion of Protestant supremacy over the Province’s Catholic residents, and according to some reports, the previous year’s march through Stotfold had allegedly included the playing of “anti-Catholic tunes”. This CNN report has some useful general background to the negative connotations of such parades:

The parades have caused conflict throughout their history, but the key political flashpoints in recent years have been Drumcree in Portadown, Ormeau Road in Belfast, and the Bogside in Derry.

It was an Apprentice Boys parade in Derry in 1969 that led to the mobilisation of British troops in Northern Ireland, after what became known as “The Battle of the Bogside”.

…In 1995, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland’s police force, prevented the Portadown District Orange Lodge from marching along the Garvaghy Road on its return journey from a service in Drumcree Parish Church.

…Orangemen refused to be dispersed or re-routed, and a two-day standoff began before police finally conceded and allowed marchers, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley and David Trimble, to walk through, but without any bands.

Nationalist protestors stood aside but were infuriated when Paisley and Trimble, at the end of the march, held their arms in the air in what appeared to be a gesture of triumph.

…The disturbances were repeated in the following year, when a four-day standoff occurred, with a crowd of up to 10,000 gathered outside police barricades.

These days things have quietened down to a great extent, and Ian Paisley is more likely to be seen arm-in-arm with his new “Chuckle brother” Martin McGuinness than with Trimble. Orange and Apprentice Boys enthusiasts present their parades as a harmless bit of cultural heritage and historical commemoration, and claim to avoid provocations against Catholics. Yearly marches in London pass without incident, but a large parade in Glasgow in July 2006 ended with 60 arrests, and a spokesperson admitted there was a problem with “hangers on” out to cause trouble. A parade in Dublin also ended badly, although there the trouble came from protestors while the mayor of the city had no problem with the parade itself.

Back in Stotfold, the local MP and Anglican Bishop released a joint statement:

…This year’s march has been strongly opposed by the Town Council and representatives of the local community, and requests not to hold the march have been refused.

Our belief is that a significant number of the people of Stotfold are profoundly concerned at this march, similar to ones which have been so associated with religious division in Northern Ireland over recent years. Stotfold people have no connection with the events in Londonderry, and have never felt the need to commemorate them.

…There is no significant history of religious intolerance in our community, and the idea of introducing this fills us with alarm. A march which at its centre celebrates events which have contributed to historic divisions between Catholic and Protestant in Ireland seems sadly out of place here, and we fail to see what positives are being achieved.

Of course, one wonders how there can be “no connection with the events in Londonderry” given the siege’s historical significance, but the rise of Orangeism in Bedfordshire is a rather unexpected development. The march itself passed peacefully, and a short video is available here. A small (and unimaginative) counter-demonstration of one, though, was not allowed:

One young man wearing a hooded top and with the bottom half of his face covered with a scarf was spoken to by police after revealing he was wearing a Sinn Fein T-shirt.

“We told him not to show his shirt again and we made sure he left the area where the march was taking place,” said Pc Ian Wilson, one of the officers covering the event.

A spokesperson explained why Stotfold was chosen:

…John McAdam, provincial grand secretary of the Loyal Orange Institution of England Midlands Lodge, who also attended the meeting, said: “We hold the march in Stotfold because our president John Roberts lives in the town.”