BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Amid heavy police and British army presence, an estimated 100,000 Protestants paraded peacefully through the province's major towns Saturday, marking the high point of Northern Ireland's tension-filled marching season.
Although violence flared in many parts of the strife-torn province late Friday, and sporadic incidents were reported Saturday night in some areas, the absence of serious clashes at any of the 19 separate marches during the day constituted a major success for hard-pressed security forces.
Marks 1690 Victory
July 12, the day in 1690 that Protestant King William of Orange defeated Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne River, is the most significant of all historic victories that Protestants here celebrate annually with parades.
The battle is viewed by Protestants as the event that preserved their supremacy over the minority Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland, and the annual marches are as much an aggressive reminder to Catholics of that supremacy as a festive holiday for themselves.
It is traditionally a time of sectarian tension, and this year emotions have been further fanned by a controversial Anglo-Irish agreement signed last November that gives the Irish Republic a consultative role in this British-ruled province.
Protestants vehemently oppose the accord, claiming it to be the first step toward Northern Ireland's integration into a united, Catholic Ireland.
Violence was expected in the town of Portadown, 30 miles south of Belfast, but was averted for much of Saturday by a last-minute agreement negotiated between Protestant leaders and police not to march through a highly sensitive Catholic enclave.
That agreement was violated late Saturday night, however, when Protestant youths attacked police with bricks and bottles and overturned a jeep, injuring four officers at the end of a peaceful march, the Associated Press reported, citing police officials. They said a mob attacked riot police that barred the marchers from entering a street in the predominantly Roman Catholic district.
About 30 people were injured last week, and a Protestant youth died last March when Protestants clashed with police as they tried to march through a Catholic area of Portadown known as "The Tunnel."
Last July 12, 30 police were injured, three of them seriously, when they forcibly rerouted the march around the same area.
Saturday, more than 1,000 police and two battalions of British army troops prevented any deviation from the agreed route.
On Full Alert
Elsewhere in the province, police and army troops remained on full alert to prevent sectarian clashes.
There were no major incidents reported in Belfast, where about 20,000 Protestants marched through the city to a rally on the southern outskirts.
Despite the general absence of violence, the Portadown compromise was condemned by Catholic leaders because it permitted a group of about 400 marchers to pass briefly along a thoroughfare bordering another Catholic residential area.
"It was a weak-willed, bad decision," said Eamon Hanna, general secretary of the Social Democratic Labor Party, which draws its support principally from moderate Catholics. "It was a capitulation to threats."
Militant Protestant leaders had previously called for a huge show of force at Portadown to resist police attempts to block their traditional avenue of march through "The Tunnel."
Catholic leaders were especially dismayed by the compromise march because last year's rerouting away from all Catholic areas was widely seen as a significant watershed, marking the first time Protestant marchers were blocked from such an action.
Police defended the revised route, saying that it was "in the best interests of peace in Northern Ireland."
At rallies that followed several parades, Protestant speakers denounced the Anglo-Irish agreement and restated their community's refusal to accept its terms, aimed in part at stabilizing the province by offering Catholics meaningful participation in the province's political process.
"It has brought neither peace, stability nor reconciliation," David Johnston, head of the Independent Orange Order, told a rally at the town of Ballymoney, north of Belfast.
The Orange Order, a Protestant religious organization, sponsors the July 12 marches.
Near the southern town of Armagh, thousands of Protestants gathered in a field to hear similar speeches. Many sported badges with slogans such as "No Pope Here," "Ulster Still Says No,", and "No Surrender, Remember 1690."
Saturday's generally peaceful marches followed a night of widespread rioting in several towns that left 90 injured.
In Portadown, four people were hit by plastic bullets Friday night, and a total of 36 people were injured as Catholics and Protestants fought with each other and with police near the town center.
In Ballymoney, seven police were injured and six people were arrested as a group of about 100 Protestant youths attacked a policewoman's home with Molotov cocktails.
With further marches planned for Monday, the province remains tense.
Early today, gunmen attacked a police patrol vehicle in County Tyrone near the Irish border, and one officer was shot in the arm and leg, police said. No group claimed responsibility, but the area is notorious for Irish Republican Army attacks on security patrols.