Thousands of police and soldiers forced a passage through a Catholic area here Sunday for a march by militant Protestants, inflaming Catholic opinion throughout Northern Ireland and touching off violence that appears likely to worsen in the coming week.
The massive turnout by security forces may have saved lives, but it also shattered the Catholic community’s trust in Britain’s new Labor government and may have dashed any hope of getting the Irish Republican Army to renew its cease-fire.
Last year, clashes over the annual march set off Northern Ireland’s most widespread rioting in a generation. Police initially blocked the march, leading to Protestant rioting. Then they allowed it to proceed, setting off Catholic rioting.
This year, officials let the Protestant parade proceed from the start.
But Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority united in fury at the British government.
After the march by 1,200 members of the Protestant Orange Order through Drumcree, 35 miles southwest of Belfast, Catholics hurled stones and bottles at security vehicles and set fire to parked cars. Police fired plastic bullets that left several of the protesters injured.
A police officer was shot and slightly injured in an attack by a shotgun-wielding assailant in the town of Coalisland. The IRA claimed responsibility.
In Lurgan, armed men hijacked a train, ordered the passengers off and set fire to it. Catholics also hijacked and burned cars in Belfast and Bellaghy and at other points around Northern Ireland.
The clashes reflected the antagonism aroused by the annual marching season in the province, when members of the Orange Order hold parades to commemorate events surrounding the victory of King William III of England, a Protestant, over former King James II, a Catholic, in 1690.
But Catholics regard the marches through their neighborhoods as provocative and triumphalist.
Jim Thompson, 36, a Catholic car worker who lives just off Garvaghy Road in Drumcree, said of the Protestants: “They are just pig-ignorant. … They can’t understand they could ever be wrong, and they practice a la carte Christianity. We are not trying to impose anything on them. We are just asking they leave us alone.”
As British troops left Garvaghy Road, one Catholic man said: “Hong Kong is safe; we’re not.”