In the north of Ireland it is silly season again. April 18 this year marks the three-hundredth-and twenty-sixth anniversary of the beginning of the siege of Derry, and the Apprentice Boys of that city are out in force marking their territory and celebrating a victory in which they had no part. In April 1689, more than a year before the Battle of the Boyne near Drogheda, King James’ forces arrived to take the walled city of Derry. Not willing to accept a ‘Papist’ (Protestant Northern Irish for ‘Catholic’) thirteen apprentices closed up the gates and shouted out the now infamous, “No surrender!” As far as historical episodes go this one is rather impressive. Who wouldn’t want to stick one up to the king and hold out against the odds in their own little Alamo? It was a daring and brave action, and on the road of war contributed to the final victory of King William III over the Kingdom of Ireland. We have to hand this much to the now long dead apprentices of Derry. Over three centuries later the Society of the Apprentice Boys, which was founded in 1814 (still long after the original apprentices were dead), is out every year doing its bit to increase tensions over England’s Irish province.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not writing this as an anti-Protestant jibe. I’m not even a Papist. We’re thinking here about an openly sectarian institution in a land of simmering sectarian hatred which was an anachronism on the day it was founded. It isn’t even likely that it was founded to continue the memory of the siege or its relief; the early part of the nineteenth century was a time of mounting tension between Protestants and Catholics in county Derry (or ‘Londonderry’ depending on where your bread’s buttered), and only the year before its foundation some four hundred Catholic Ribbonmen, armed with sticks, had been repelled by Orangemen armed with muskets in their attempt to destroy a pub where the Orange Order met to plan actions designed to harass Catholic farmers from their land. Now the Wee North has the Good Friday Agreement and a developing peace process which have increased the weight of the peace wall (a contradiction in terms if ever there was one) across Belfast. At last real work is being done on the ground and in the halls of government to deliver a lasting peace – a meaningful peace – to the north of this island, and so we have to ask the question: What good do these marches do for the cause of peace?