BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — Northern Ireland's major Protestant brotherhood, the Orange Order, staged massive parades across the British territory Friday in an annual show of strength — and warned its members would mount a standoff with riot police in a bid to march past a hostile Catholic district.
More than 4,000 Northern Irish police backed by 630 reinforcements from Britain vowed to prevent any direct Catholic-Protestant clashes on "the Twelfth," Northern Ireland's official sectarian holiday, when the British Protestant majority commemorates a 17th-century military victory over their Irish Catholic foes.
But arguments over a 300-yard (meter) stretch of north Belfast road near the hard-line Catholic neighborhood of Ardoyne threatened to trigger night-time street battles for the fifth year in a row. Police said they were prepared for potential trouble in 42 other spots where Orange parades pass near Catholic areas.
Since 2009, Irish Republican Army die-hards based in Ardoyne have attacked police after Orangemen marched by, wounding more than 250 officers with firebombs, grenades, live rounds, bricks and bottles. This year a British-appointed Parades Commission ordered Orangemen not to march past the spot in hopes of defusing tensions.
Instead, Orangemen have rejected the order and called on members to break the Parades Commission ruling. They say members must be permitted to march as usual to their lodge, which lies further up the same road.
While insisting they don't want Protestants to attack police or Ardoyne Catholics, Orange leaders said members would mount a standoff whenever riot police stop their path Friday night. They laid blame in advance for any bloodshed on the Parades Commission, a cross-community panel that since 1997 has restricted Orange marches from passing near Catholic communities.
"The Parades Commission are showing that violence pays. By their actions they've created this crisis," said the Rev. Mervyn Gibson, the Orange Order's chaplain and a former police officer.
When asked whether Protestants should respect the Parades Commission's legal authority, Gibson said no.
"We cannot accept something that is so deliberately stacked against us. This is not about 300 yards of road. This is people trying to get home," he said.
Catholic leaders accused Orangemen of violating a series of Parades Commission restrictions during morning parades through Belfast. They noted that some of the order's accompanying bands of fife and drum — called "kick the pope bands" by both sides in a candid admission of their intention to irritate the Irish side — ignored orders not to play overtly sectarian tunes as they passed an inner-city Catholic church, a venue for previous street fights.
"The Twelfth" commemorates the July 12, 1690, triumph of Protestant King William of Orange against the Catholic he dethroned, James II, in the Battle of the Boyne south of Belfast.
The Orange Order, founded in 1795 as a force for uniting disparate Protestant denominations under one anti-Catholic banner, was instrumental in creating Northern Ireland in 1921 shortly before the predominantly Catholic rest of Ireland won independence from Britain.
Catholic clashes with police over Protestant marches triggered the rise of Northern Ireland's modern conflict in 1969. The issue has defied resolution despite a two-decade peace process that has delivered paramilitary cease-fires, British military withdrawals, police reform and a stable Catholic-Protestant government.
But progress has been achieved in lowering sectarian passions, particularly in Northern Ireland's second-largest city of Londonderry, following patient negotiations over the past 15 years between Orange and Catholic leaders.
On Friday, Orangemen staged their biggest parade in the predominantly Catholic city with no reported trouble. The Orange lodge leading the Londonderry parade displayed a newly painted banner honoring the city's pedestrian Peace Bridge, which links the Catholic west side with its Protestant east.
Friday's parades attracted unusually heavy crowds, reflecting exceptional sunshine on what was the hottest day of the year. Among the Belfast spectators, many bedecked in Union Jack-patterned hats and sunglasses, was a sleeping infant bearing a bib that read, "My 1st Twelfth."