More than 100,000 pro-British Protestants marched across Northern Ireland on Saturday in a traditional show of strength, but for the first time in two centuries chose to avoid many hostile Catholic areas.
The concession by the Protestants’ Orange Order was widely hailed as a potentially momentous turn toward peace. However, it outraged many within the ranks of the Orange Order while failing to placate hard-line Catholic protesters, who forced police to block several rural marches Saturday.
In two attacks overnight before the marches, anti-British gunmen shot three soldiers, two police officers and two Protestant teenagers in two attacks in north Belfast. The Irish Republican Army claimed responsibility for the attacks on the soldiers and police, but no one admitted shooting the teenagers.
“The Orange Order deserves a world of credit for putting peace above principled self-interests today. But unfortunately, our gesture has been thrown back in our faces,” said Jeffrey Donaldson, deputy grand master of the 80,000-strong fraternal order and a member of Parliament for the Ulster Unionist Party.
The party and order helped found Northern Ireland in 1920 as a Protestant-majority state - a state that the IRA and its allied Sinn Fein party have sought for 27 years to eradicate.
Since 1995, IRA supporters have led efforts to block Orange marches that pass near or through Catholic areas. The annual marches commemorate the 1690 military victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over James II, the deposed Catholic monarch of Ireland, Scotland and England.
Last weekend, 1,500 police and soldiers clubbed Catholic protesters from the route of an Orange parade through the main Catholic section of the town of Portadown, southwest of Belfast.
That triggered widespread Catholic rioting and a deeper determination among Catholic protest groups to block Saturday’s parades in Belfast and Londonderry. Fearing potentially deadly violence, Orange leaders surprised Northern Ireland by calling off those parades, for the first time since the order was founded in 1795.
North of Belfast, the scene at midday Saturday was of Orangemen and their families gathered around picnics in green fields, or enjoying tea and sandwiches inside their Orange halls. The Orangemen insist that that their celebrations should not cause offense.
But each year’s July 12 celebrations have another agenda, exemplified by the raucous “kick the pope” bands of fife and drum that paraded through Belfast with approximately 7,000 Orangemen dressed in dark suits and orange vestments.
In post-parade speeches, Orangemen bared their internal divisions. Grand Master Robert Saulters pleaded for unity, but some of his own deputies suggested he would soon be forced to resign.
In Londonderry, a bizarre scene unfolded as a small group of local Orangemen set out on their compromise route away from the city center - but were blocked by harder-line Protestants, who demanded that they turn around and march back to where they might offend the town’s Catholic majority.
To prevent trouble, soldiers and police escorted the Orangemen to the war memorial at the city center.
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