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Friday, 3 December, 1999, 20:39 GMT
The Apprentice Boys' march
Apprentice Boys to march on Saturday
Apprentice Boys to march on Saturday
By BBC NI's Keiron Tourish

Northern Ireland's second largest city, Londonderry, plays host to a significant march in the calendar of the Protestant Apprentice Boys on Saturday.

The "Shutting of the Gates" celebration commemorates the start of a 105-day siege in 1688.

Thirteen young Apprentices closed the gates of the walled city to stop the advancing forces of the Catholic King James' army.

Their heroism is now celebrated each year with a parade in December and August. The latter recalling the relief of the city when the opposing forces were forced to retreat.

But in Northern Ireland's recent history, these marches have proved controversial and led to protests from the Nationalist Catholic community.

They have organised counter demonstrations against what they termed "the ring of steel around the city to facilitate a triumphalist march."

The Apprentice Boys, on the other hand, say they merely want to celebrate their culture and heritage.

Backdrop of tension

In previous years, the marches were set against a backdrop of tension which resulted in disorder from both sides.

The most serious disturbances were caused by Nationalist Catholic youths who petrol bombed the RUC and local businesses causing a catalogue of damage. The worst rioting led to a repair bill of 5m.

In recent years there have been proximity talks involving a range of people aimed at getting a resolution to the annual dispute.

They have almost always failed. In an effort to ease the situation the Apprentice Boys announced that they were to hold this year's demonstration at the start of December because of traders' fears about the impact on their businesses.

In a reciprocal gesture, the Nationalist Bogside Residents' Group said they would call off any planned protests.

Many are now hoping, not least in the business community, that Saturday's march will pass without incident. Around 2,000 Apprentice Boys are expected in the city and they'll be accompanied by 25 bands.

They will walk around the city centre twice and attend a religious service before burning an effigy of Robert Lundy, a Lieutenant Colonel in the forces of King William III in 1688.

He is regarded by Apprentice Boys as a traitor because of several defeats during strategically important battles and what they saw as his stewardship in the role of governor of the city.

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