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Sectarian Enmity on Parade Again in N. Ireland


BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Northern Ireland's sectarian marching season opened Friday with an air of menace and trepidation as more than 1,000 Protestants paraded through divided north Belfast.

Several hundred riot police backed by British soldiers and surveillance helicopters guarded the parade by the Orange Order, a conservative Protestant fraternal group, and watched Catholics along the parade route holding placards denouncing Orangemen and police.

Catholic leaders vowed to keep their protest peaceful, but youths threw stones and bottles over police lines as the parade passed a high-rise Catholic welfare project. No serious injuries were reported.

The Orangemen, whose parades for the last two centuries have provoked Catholic resentment and fear, plan their biggest summertime demonstrations each July 12, the anniversary of a 17th-century military victory over Catholic forces.

Two other clash-prone marches are scheduled for the coming two weekends in Belfast and Portadown.

Since 1995, Catholics led by Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party, have blockaded Protestant parades in and around Catholic areas. That strategy has forced British security forces to take sides--either by clubbing Catholics off the disputed roadways or, more commonly, clashing with Protestants.

Politicians on both sides worry that this marching season could prove particularly violent, given the recent months of sporadic violence in polarized parts of Belfast, especially its north.

That violence partly reflects growing Protestant opposition to the 1998 peace accord giving Sinn Fein a role in a joint Catholic-Protestant government for this British territory.

A British-appointed Parades Commission imposed restrictions on Friday's parade, attempting to keep Orangemen far from Catholics. The commission has tried since 1997 with little success to arrange compromises between Protestant marchers and Catholic protesters.

But Orangemen generally refuse to talk to commissioners.

Protestants said Friday's "Tour of the North" parade was intended to promote solidarity among the area's shrinking and increasingly isolated Protestant districts, which are separated from the growing Catholic community by high fences of brick and steel.

Sinn Fein's senior area representative, Gerry Kelly, said Catholic residents should not have to be within hearing distance of the orange-vested marchers, who are accompanied by uniformed flutists and drummers.

Kelly said Catholic residents of the New Lodge welfare project along the parade route "have been under attack, frankly, by the same people who are marching in this parade."

But an Orange spokesman, Nelson McCausland, said Friday's parade went mostly past closed businesses and offices, not Catholic residences. He said many Catholics watching the parade had traveled several miles from the mostly Catholic west side.

"These IRA supporters have come a long way to be offended," he said.

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