Protestant Protests Reaching Climax
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ The hijacked cars are burning, the shops all closed, the buses and trains canceled, the tourists long gone, the police earning their overtime in full riot gear.
Yes, Belfast is in full summer bloom once again. And the most hard-line Protestants are getting their marching shoes on for their biggest day out, the Glorious Twelfth, a one-sided holiday that many Catholics dread.
Halfhearted appeals by the Orange Order brotherhood for supporters to protest peacefully over restrictions on their July parades have done little to deter more than a week of riots, attacks on Catholic properties and tense confrontations with police.
Authorities are hoping the worst will be over once more than 80,000 Orangemen march Wednesday in a dozen mass demonstrations across Northern Ireland. They’re officially commemorating the July 12, 1690, triumph of the Protestant King William of Orange over the forces of Catholic James II, although many Catholics and moderate Protestants think the marches are more about asserting control over a country where the Catholic minority is growing.
The night before, the Eleventh Night, when Protestants gather round towering bonfires of garbage to talk and drink heavily, is traditionally when sectarian passions burn most deeply.
``This disorder can’t go on much longer. It never does in Northern Ireland. Even die-hards get tired out _ but it is a very dangerous time all the same,″ said Cyril Donnan, the senior policeman in Portadown, a cauldron of anti-Catholic sentiment southwest of Belfast and the epicenter for this month’s province-wide turmoil.
Overnight, several hundred young Protestant men again rallied at the spot north of Portadown where British army engineers have erected obstacles blocking the Orangemen’s path through the town’s main Catholic district. They threw firecrackers and fired flares at Donnan’s police lines on the far side of the barbed wire as part of a wider campaign to stretch the security forces to breaking point.
But the predominantly Protestant police, backed by several thousand British soldiers, has shown no signs of bending, as happened in 1996, when Catholic protesters on Portadown’s Garvaghy Road were shoved off the pavement to make way for the Orangemen after four nights of intense Protestant rioting.
This year the police, by taking a less confrontational approach with most rioters, has helped ensure that the bloodshed so far has stayed to a minimum, with no deaths. Unlike so many years past, they have fired virtually no plastic bullets, the high-velocity cylinders that are designed to knock down _ and often seriously injure _ rioters.
On Monday night in Portadown, police instead dealt with a stone-throwing mob from Portadown’s most extreme Protestant neighborhoods by hosing them down with high-powered water cannons borrowed from Belgium. And extra soldiers were helicoptered into fields near Garvaghy Road to ensure that no wire-cutting Protestants would be able to outflank their positions. After a few tense hours, the crowds went home.
Elsewhere in Belfast and predominantly Protestant towns, hooligans were allowed to run riot within their own neighborhoods, hijacking passing cars whose drivers were daring enough to drive past. But few were. The streets of Northern Ireland were virtually empty from 4 p.m. Monday onwards because of the threat of snap Orange blockades causing traffic jams.
Sporadic violence continued through the night.
In the early hours Tuesday, petrol bombs were hurled at police, troops and fire fighters in the Protestant village of Dromore, southwest of Belfast. Two people were arrested, but there were no injuries.
In southern County Armagh, three people were hospitalized suffering from smoke inhalation after petrol bombs were thrown at an Orange hall. In central Belfast, seven shots were fired at a police vehicle.
Portadown’s Orange Order spokesman, David Jones, said Orangemen would continue the campaign of civil disobedience Tuesday with scattered road blockades and other unspecified protests all day.
Jones insisted all blame for the trouble should lie with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a government-appointed Parades Commission, which since 1998 has had the authority to order restrictions on Orange parades opposed by Catholics. He said Orangemen would continue protesting until authorities relented and allowed Portadown Orangemen to parade down Garvaghy Road.
Given recent statements from the Parades Commission and British government, that won’t happen unless Orange leaders drop their boycott on direct talks involving the Catholic protesters opposing them.