Inspired by Northern Ireland's compromise peace accord, Protestants began the traditional "marching season" Monday by bowing to demands that they not parade through a hostile Catholic area of Belfast.
The peaceful start contrasted with the violent street confrontations of recent years between pro-British Protestant fraternal groups and militant Catholics determined to block their parades.The Protestant group, the Apprentice Boys, said they had decided not to confront police barring their path - as they have previously - because of the accord reached Friday among eight parties on how Northern Ireland should be governed.
The deal, if approved in May 22 referendums in both parts of Ireland, would create a new Northern Ireland Assembly that for the first time cooperates formally with the rest of Ireland. But the north would remain firmly tied to Britain.
The Apprentice Boys' gesture came the day after Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams urged Irish Republican Army supporters to accept the accord, telling them his negotiators could not have gotten a better deal. The IRA-allied party's commitment to the historic settlement is essential for it to work.
Pope John Paul II Monday thanked God for the Northern Ireland peace pact and appealed for "responsible and concrete gestures" to make it work.
Even though the Apprentice Boys failed to march through the Catholic area Monday, they vowed to march through the Lower Or-meau area at least once this summer. They declined to negotiate with neighborhood Catholic activists determined to block them.
"We do not seek confrontation. We simply want to peaceably parade from the Orange hall to the city center," said the Apprentice Boys' local spokesman, Worthington McGrath.
He and about 20 other middle-aged men in conservative suits and bowler hats marched beneath a banner of the British crown on an open Bible, and behind a "Young Loyalists" fife-and-drum band, along a predominantly Protestant stretch of south Belfast.
But the marchers stopped at a bridge spanning the River Lagan, which divides the mostly Protestant Upper Ormeau from eight Catholic side streets constituting the Lower Ormeau. Instead, they boarded a bus to take them to the mostly Protestant town of Ballymena, northwest of Belfast, for another parade.
Catholics opposed to Protestants marching through their Lower Ormeau neighborhood said they would block any marches. In the past three years, the deadlock has forced police to decide which side to confront - sometimes the Protestants, other times the Catholics.
"Ideally we need to sit down with the Apprentice Boys and sort out a long-term solution," said Gerard Rice, a paroled IRA member who leads a Lower Ormeau protest group.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's police chief, Ronnie Flanagan, warned Monday that militants on both sides of the community remain "intent on murder, intent on bombing - intent on wrecking any prospect there is for a peaceful outcome here."