Ireland To widespread surprise, the province’s main Protestant fraternal group Thursday night canceled parades that threatened to trigger another round of street violence in Catholic neighborhoods.
The announcement by the Orange Order, which had planned parades this weekend through a Catholic section of south Belfast and the city of Londonderry, drew praise from several quarters.
The group canceled some marches and rerouted others away from predominately Catholic sections, reducing the chances of a repeat of confrontations that hit Northern Ireland for three days this week.
Widespread street fighting racked Catholic areas of Northern Ireland beginning Sunday and left 100 police and civilians injured after police and British troops forced an Orange march through the main Catholic neighborhood of Portadown, southwest of Belfast.
Facing a concerted campaign by Catholic militants to block each march, the stubborn Orangemen made a conciliatory gesture unprecedented in their 202-year history.
“This was an extremely bitter pill to swallow, but the powers that be made it clear to us that to have taken any other decision would have meant civil war,” said the Rev. Bill Hoey, an Anglican minister who attended a heated behind-closed-doors meeting of Orangemen in south Belfast on Thursday night.
Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, the Cabinet member responsible for the province, welcomed the move.
“It will be received with a great deal of relief and appreciation throughout Northern Ireland and beyond,” she said.
In Dublin, an Irish government statement said: “It is a very positive gesture by the Orange Order, and the government believes it deserves an equally positive response from nationalists.”
“This is an extremely courageous decision. It pulls us back from the brink just when it looked like our society was prepared to self-destruct,” said Lord John Alderdice, leader of Alliance, Northern Ireland’s only party able to attract much support from both Catholics and Protestants.
Catholics had said they would sends thousands to assemble on the road and prevent the planned march Saturday by about 1,000 Orangemen through south Belfast’s Lower Ormeau Catholic neighborhood.
Gerard Rice, leader of the Lower Ormeau protesters, gave the news a grudging welcome.
“I have great difficulty in thanking the Orange Order for granting me the right to live free from fear and intimidation - for granting me the right to feel as an equal,” he said.
The Catholic plan was to block the road and force police either to drag them off or block the Orangemen, who are hated by many Catholics.
In addition to Saturday’s cancellation, the Orange parade planned for Londonderry, 75 miles northwest of Belfast, was rescheduled for the mostly Protestant town of Limavady. Two other parades in Newry, 30 miles south of Belfast, and Armagh, 40 miles to the southwest, will avoid predominantly Catholic areas.
Orangemen still will hold several hundred parades across Northern Ireland on Saturday to celebrate what Protestants say secured their superior position in Northern Ireland.
Each July 12, the Orange Order stages hundreds of parades across Northern Ireland to commemorate the late 17th-century victories of King William of Orange over the deposed Catholic king, James II.
Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, commander of the 12,000-strong predominantly Protestant police force, apparently brokered the deal after a two-hour meeting at the Orange Order’s headquarters.
He declined comment except to say the Orange announcement is “a victory for common sense.”