DUBLIN — At least 10 police officers have been injured in nighttime Belfast riots after the British territory's main Protestant brotherhood was blocked from marching past a Catholic district, an annual confrontation that usually ends in violence.
The officers, who donned helmets, shields and flame-retardant boiler suits, suffered a range of injuries from bottles, bolts and other hand-thrown projectiles as they blocked the Orange Order parade from passing Ardoyne, a power base of the outlawed Irish Republican Army.
Masked men and teenagers in the Protestant mob tried to break through police lines, a few jumping on top of police armored vehicles, but they were forced back by officers' locked shields and blasts from mobile water cannons.
One senior officer, who wasn't wearing a riot helmet, was struck on the head with a brick, knocked unconscious and dragged by officers away from the confrontation zone.
At a Catholic counterdemonstration in nearby Ardoyne, a motorist appeared to drive his car deliberately into the crowd, striking and injuring a 16-year-old girl who was left pinned under a wheel of the car. Catholic civilians and police surrounded the car and tipped it on its side to free the girl. Police arrested the driver.
Ardoyne protest leaders said they believed the driver was an Orange Order supporter trying to maim or kill anti-Orange protesters; some said the driver was wearing the uniform of an Orange-affiliated band.
Police have blocked the annual Orange parade past Ardoyne since 2013, when Orangemen and their supporters rioted for hours and left dozens of officers injured. The anti-Catholic fraternal group has mounted a round-the-clock protest camp near the point of the blockade for the past two years, insisting their right to freedom of assembly was being unfairly restricted because of IRA-style violence mounted by the other side's extremists.
In the years before the 2013 ban on evening Orange parades past Ardoyne, the march was repeatedly pelted with projectiles as it passed and police faced much more intense violence, including from IRA activists on Ardoyne store roofs overlooking the street who hurled homemade grenades into police lines. Hundreds of officers were wounded while protecting the parades.
The Orange Order, founded in 1795 as an umbrella group for Protestants in Ireland, was instrumental in founding Northern Ireland as a Protestant-majority state in 1921 as the predominantly Catholic rest of Ireland won independence from Britain. Each July, tens of thousands of Orangemen and accompanying troupes of fife, accordion and drum called "kick the pope" bands march to commemorate the 1690 battlefield victory of William of Orange, the Protestant king of England, over forces loyal to the Catholic king he deposed, James II.
The sectarian event is an official holiday in Northern Ireland and is called the Twelfth because, usually, it happens on July 12. This year's parades — more than 600 of them across the British territory of 1.8 million residents — took place a day later because Orangemen decline to commemorate William's victory when the Twelfth falls on a Sunday.
Most IRA members renounced violence and disarmed in 2005 in support of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord. But small breakaway factions continue to mount occasional attacks, and Ardoyne remains a base for IRA die-hards.