June 23, 1997 in Nation/World

N. Ireland Marches Blocked Protestant Groups Attempt To Pass Through Catholic Areas

Associated Press

Rows of riot police blocked three Protestant marches from confronting Catholic protesters Sunday, while the former U.S. senator leading talks on the province’s future appealed for calm.

Police stopped marchers from the Orange Order, the main pro-British Protestant fraternal group, when they tried to pass through the mostly Catholic villages of Bellaghy, Montfield and Keady - all located in a radius of about 50 miles from Belfast.

The marches - more than 2,000 of which occur each summer - celebrate the Protestant majority’s traditional dominance in Northern Ireland. Most don’t pass through Catholic areas, but Catholic militants are determined to block any that do. Last summer, the confrontations sparked the most widespread riots Northern Ireland had seen in a generation.

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, appointed last year by the British and Irish governments to oversee talks among nine local parties, said his attempt to find a compromise on governing Northern Ireland was “not hopeless.”

But speaking to BBC television, Mitchell said much depended on marching disputes being resolved without violence and on “tangible progress in the talks themselves.”

In Bellaghy, about 200 Orangemen and an accompanying women’s accordion band marched to the police barricade, gave the police commander a protest letter saying their right to free assembly had been violated, and did a U-turn back down the hill to their Anglican church. Most members wore orange vests, bowler hats and conservative suits.

Similar scenes were repeated in Mountfield and Keady.

On the other side of police lines in Bellaghy, about 150 Catholics marched toward police lines, led by a banner claiming marchers and the predominantly Protestant police were both guilty of an “Invasion of Bellaghy.”

But police turned out by the hundreds at each flashpoint to keep the two sides well separated. Both sides accused the police of discriminating against them but offered only verbal abuse.

Fear of a second summer of rioting has been heightened by rising paramilitary activity. The Irish Republican Army, which abandoned its 1994 cease-fire 16 months ago, on Monday shot two Protestant policemen to death.

Pro-British “loyalist” paramilitary groups are still officially sticking to their own October 1994 truce, but unofficially have been responding to IRA attacks.

On Saturday, a bomb exploded under a moving car in Belfast, slightly injuring three people, two of them supporters of an IRA splinter group.

Efforts to broker a compromise on the marches have been hindered by the same distrust that has held back the wider talks, which began in June 1996 and resumed this month.

“Progress has been painfully slow,” Mitchell said.

In the wider peace talks, Sinn Fein has been barred because of the IRA’s resumed hostilities against British rule.

© Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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