Protestants march across Northern Ireland after sectarian riots leave 27 officers injured

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Monday, July 12, 2010

Protestants rally after Belfast sectarian riots

DUBLIN — Irish Catholic youths rioted in Belfast before Monday’s mass parades by Protestant brotherhood the Orange Order, leaving more than two dozen police officers injured, authorities said.

The annual parades are the day of the year when Northern Ireland tensions run at their highest.

Police said 27 officers were injured, none critically, during overnight riots with about 200 youths and young men in two Irish-nationalist districts of inner Belfast near the highway that cuts Belfast in two.

Police said three officers — all wearing riot gear including helmets and flame-retardant suits — were hit with pellets from a single shotgun blast, but none sustained life-threatening injuries. Several vehicles were stolen and burned during the clashes.

Hours later, more than 30,000 members and supporters of the Orange Order began to parade down several Northern Ireland streets on the Twelfth, a state holiday in Northern Ireland that much of the province’s Catholic minority loathes.

The Twelfth officially commemorates the July 12, 1690, victory of Protestant King William of Orange versus his Irish Catholic rival for the British throne, James II. In practice, the Protestant demonstrations provide an annual test of the Orangemen’s power to march where they want — a power severely restricted by British authorities over the past 15 years.

Police and politicians said they expected the major parades in 18 locations across Northern Ireland to pass peacefully, but authorities braced for potential trouble at a few key sectarian flashpoints in the evening when small Protestant parades pass near hard-line Irish nationalist parts of Belfast.

In Protestant areas, the long night before the Twelfth parades featured the burning of hundreds of makeshift bonfires on waste ground and in the middle of working-class Protestant districts. Northern Ireland firefighters had to deal with 28 incidents overnight in which bonfires threatened to engulf nearby homes, but no property was seriously damaged.

Police said seven people, including two children, were injured when a car collided with a group of people watching one bonfire near a Belfast hospital. Police said none of their injuries were critical. They said the circumstances of the collision weren’t clear and the driver fled the scene in his car.

“It was a scene of utter chaos afterwards,” said Ruth Patterson, a Protestant city councilman and witness. “People were lying on the road screaming and there were nine ambulances there helping the injured.”

Until the mid-1990s, Orangemen were permitted to march past many hostile Catholic districts with few restrictions, but then protest groups led by Irish Republican Army veterans began organizing Catholic attempts to block the parade routes. As violence persisted and flared each July, Britain increasingly imposed restrictions on the most explosive parades.

For the past decade, a British-appointed Parades Commission has issued restrictions on controversial parades that the Orange Order has generally observed, leading to far less violence.

However, this is expected to be the last year that the commission wields these powers, because the Protestant and Catholic leaders of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government have agreed to establish new systems for controlling parade-related trouble.

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