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Protestant brotherhood Orange Order begins tense day of marches across Northern Ireland
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) ¯¯¯ Tens of thousands of Protestants from the Orange Order brotherhood marched from their lodges Thursday across Northern Ireland in an annual demonstration of strength that often drives sectarian feelings to the boiling point.
Hours before the start of the daylong marches, riot police clashed with Irish nationalist men and teens on the edge of Catholic west Belfast. They arrested eight suspected rioters and said several of their officers suffered minor injuries from hurled stones, bricks and bottles.
That trouble flared as Protestants gathered around hundreds of midnight bonfires that precede the Orange Order parades on the Twelfth, an official holiday in this British territory of 1.7 million. Reflecting the religious-political divide that scars Northern Ireland today, bonfire revelers sang anti-Catholic songs and cheered as Irish flags were tossed into the flames.
Police are braced for trouble Thursday night when Orangemen pass Ardoyne, an Irish nationalist district in north Belfast that has spawned riots for the past three Twelfths. Police in armored vehicles were deployed to the area in the morning.
Last year, 16 policemen were wounded during two nights of Ardoyne street clashes involving several hundred men and boys bombarding police lines with Molotov cocktails, wood planks and even stolen furniture. Rioting in the area was worse in 2010 and 2005.
This year a British government-appointed Parades Commission has tried to defuse the clash by ordering the area's Orangemen to pass Ardoyne three hours earlier than usual. The commission also authorized a parade by Ardoyne residents opposed to the Orangemen to happen 90 minutes later.
Police said they would enforce the new 4 p.m. (1500GMT) deadline for the Orangemen to pass Ardoyne, a cluster of red-brick terraced houses that has long been a power base for the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Protestant leaders initially decried the decree as logistically impossible but announced Wednesday night they had found a way to avoid conflict. They refused to say what their decision was, fueling Catholic unease.
"No one seems to be sure that their peaceful solution is. Their peaceful solution could actually be something that makes matters worse," said Dee Fennell, spokesman for the anti-Orange group planning a counterdemonstration, the Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective.
Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party, appealed to both sides to avoid street fights with the police, who typically flood the area in the hundreds to ensure that the two sides cannot get close to each other. He said the crux of the problem was the Orangemen's decades-old refusal to negotiate directly with anti-Orange groups from Catholic districts.
"The Orange (Order) should have their day, but the people in the host community have a right to be talked to," Adams said.
The July marches of Orangemen in suits, bowler hats and medallion-bedecked Orange vestments have stoked conflict with the Irish Catholic minority since the early 19th century. Their sectarian intent is brashly underscored by accompanying military-style ensembles of fife and drum called "kick the pope" bands.
The Twelfth officially commemorates King William of Orange's military victory on July 12, 1690, versus forces loyal to the deposed Catholic king of England, James II. Protestants consider that victory a key moment when Protestant rights in Ireland were secured. Many of the hand-painted banners carried by Orangemen depict William, sword held aloft triumphant on a white horse, alongside the central Orange symbol of a British crown atop an open Bible.
The day's mass demonstrations traditionally provoked fear and loathing among Catholics, demonstrating Orange power in what was once a Northern Ireland governed and policed overwhelmingly by its British Protestant majority.
Those days are long gone. Britain abolished the Protestant local government in 1972 during the worst year of bloodshed, and in 1998 formed the Parades Commission to impose police-enforced restrictions on Orange marches near Catholic areas. After initial violent resistance, Orangemen have grudgingly accepted most restrictions but still refuse to talk to the anti-Orange groups.
Commentators agree that the Orangemen's boycott on direct contact with the enemy appears anachronistic given that Northern Ireland since 2007 has had a unity government jointly led by Orangemen and Sinn Fein.
But the Ardoyne conflict also defies easy resolution because of the limits of Belfast's road network. The Orangemen are trying to walk back to their lodge, and Ardoyne lies to one side of the road that directly connects that lodge to downtown Belfast. The parade mostly passes Ardoyne's street-facing row of small shops, not homes, so it's inaccurate to say the parade travels through a Catholic area.
Since 2009 several hundred men and boys have rallied outside the Ardoyne shops, tried to block the parade, and fought nighttime battles with riot police.
Orange Order, http://bit.ly/reQKqQ
Parades Commission, http://bit.ly/OzeyhC