BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Irish Catholic militants attacked riot police Thursday in a divided corner of Belfast as the most polarizing day on Northern Ireland's calendar reached a typically ugly end — and yet managed, amid the smoke and chaos, to take a few tentative steps toward compromise.
Many hours of violence in the hardline Catholic Ardoyne district marked the fourth straight year that the area has descended into anarchy following the annual passage of Protestant marchers from the Orange Order brotherhood.
Massive Orange parades across Northern Ireland each July 12 — an official holiday that commemorates the Protestant side's victory in 17th-century religious warfare — often stoke conflict with Catholics, who despise the annual marches as a Protestant show of superiority.
But in recent years, as British authorities have restricted the Protestants' march routes, a drab stretch of road that passes a row of Ardoyne shops has become the focal point for province-wide animosity. There, the decades-old battle for supremacy between the British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority wages a yearly test of wills, with heavily armored police stuck in the middle.
A British government-appointed Parades Commission sought to defuse the Ardoyne conflict this year by ordering the Orangemen to march along Crumlin Road by 4 p.m. local time, three hours sooner than normal. Protestant leaders grudgingly accepted the deadline rather than mount a later standoff, and all sides agreed this gesture kept a bad situation from turning even worse.
The Parades Commission and police also permitted Ardoyne residents for the first time to stage their own march on the road a few hours later in a bid to balance competing rights. Protracted violence by masked Ardoyne youths followed that second gesture.
As the rioting headed toward midnight, police said nine officers had been wounded and two rioters arrested. They said rioters had hijacked and burned three cars and were tossing occasional Molotov cocktails at police lines. Officers responded by firing a half-dozen plastic bullets, blunt-nosed cylinders designed to knock down the target without penetrating the skin.
The sectarian showdown on Crumlin Road demonstrated how, despite a two-decade peace process and five years of a joint Catholic-Protestant government, Northern Ireland at grass-roots level still faces a long, uncertain journey to achieve reconciliation.
Indeed, Protestant officials of the unity government took part in the Orange parade, while some of their Catholic counterparts stood with the Ardoyne protesters. And yet both sides' leaders said the dispute would do nothing to derail their continued cooperation the rest of the year.
Orangemen, unable to reach Ardoyne on foot by the Parades Commission's 4 p.m. deadline, considered standing their ground with police in a bid to force their march through in the evening. Their leaders insisted they had to defend their right to freedom of assembly, fearing that once banned from a particular stretch of road they would never be permitted to return.
But aware that a standoff would inevitably end in violent clashes between Protestants and police, Orange leaders decided to observe the deadline and compromise — while still maintaining a symbolic claim to the road.
They sent a token group of two dozen members by bus to march along that short stretch of road past the Ardoyne shops. Police girded in flame-retardant boiler suits, helmets, shatter-proof visors and shields flanked the tiny Orange procession as several hundred Protestants, many waving Union Jacks, cheered the scene from one side of the thoroughfare.
On the other side, masked Catholic youths were already stockpiling makeshift weapons for the night's fight ahead. Denied a decent Orange provocation, the Irish side appeared hell-bent on confronting the police regardless.
Several youths smashed their way into a parked silver BMW, pushed it toward police lines and set it on fire. A police armored car rammed the vehicle into a sidewalk, then a mobile water cannon doused the flames and turned its jets on the growing crowd of rioters.
Soon the Ardoyne crowd, fueled by militants from other hardline Catholic parts of Belfast, swelled to more than 1,000 on two narrow side streets.
In a bid to defuse the tensions, police permitted the Catholic Ardoyne residents to stage their own march on Crumlin Road — even though the unruly procession passed dangerously close to an angry crowd of a few hundred Protestants. The Catholics bore a banner at the front that read "Ardoyne residents have rights too."
Both sides traded vulgar verbal abuse. Masked, hooded youths within the much larger Catholic group tossed bottles and stones at the Protestants, who retaliated in kind. Soon salvos of bricks, golf balls and even planks of wood were flying back and forth over the helmeted heads of the police, who saturated the area to ensure that the two sides could not get within punching distance of the other.
Before the confrontation, Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party, said the crux of the problem was the Orangemen's longstanding 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.
Commentators agree that the Orange Order's boycott on direct contact with the enemy appears anachronistic given that Northern Ireland's government is led chiefly by Orangemen and Sinn Fein, who do talk and work together.
But the Ardoyne conflict also defies easy resolution because of the tight confines of Belfast geography.Comment on this story
The starting point and final destination for the local Orangemen marching Thursday was their lodge, and Crumlin Road is the only direct link between it and the day's main Orange parade. That means any Orange march in the area must pass the Ardoyne shops.
Orange Order, http://bit.ly/reQKqQ
Parades Commission, http://bit.ly/OzeyhC