Orange order members parade past St Patrick's Roman Catholic church in Belfast city centre, Northern Ireland, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012. Thousands of people are taking part in commemorations in Belfast to mark one of the most significant dates in unionist history. The six-mile march from central Belfast to Stormont marks the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant, to oppose Home Rule for Ireland in 1912. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — Belfast is seeing one of its biggest Protestant parades in years Saturday, with thousands participating amid fears that it will degenerate into street clashes with the police and Northern Ireland's Catholic minority. These one-sided marches have tested tempers each year since the 19th century, and show no sign of abating despite Northern Ireland's successful peace process. The AP explores why.
The Protestant "loyal orders," chiefly two groups called the Orangemen and the Apprentice Boys. Members carry hand-painted banners depicting key historical events and values, both political and religious, while groups of fife and drum — often called "kick the pope" bands — play tunes ranging from the spiritual to the overtly anti-Irish.
WHY DO THEY DO IT?
For the Protestants, a successful march demonstrates their continued hold over endlessly disputed territory, town by town, street by street. They expect their right to freedom of assembly to be upheld by the law.
But for most Catholics, the marches are offensive, considered mass intimidation by the Protestant majority.
WHO ARE THE ORANGEMEN?
The Orangemen honor King William of Orange, a Dutchman who ousted a Catholic from the British throne in 1688 and then defeated that rival, James II, in a series of battles in Ireland. The Orange Order's biggest marches come each July 12, the anniversary of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, when William's army forded a river south of Belfast to rout James' forces — and according to Orange lore, ensured Protestant civil and religious liberty from that day forward.
WHO ARE THE APPRENTICE BOYS?
The Apprentice Boys of Derry, based in Northern Ireland's second-largest city, Londonderry, honor the other totemic moment from those 17th-century religious wars: the 1689 Siege of Derry. The recently deposed James, seeking to reclaim his London throne from his sanctuary in predominantly Catholic Ireland, sent forces to demand that the Protestant garrison of the walled town surrender. Teenage apprentices bolted the gates shut, starting a 105-day siege that the residents survived by eating rats.
ISN'T THIS ANCIENT HISTORY?
No. Both fraternal groups exist, in part, to keep these vivid ancestral memories alive in today's Northern Ireland. The Protestant community here has what sociologists call a "siege mentality," a view that they can never feel at ease because of a traitorous Irish minority forever committed to pushing Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into the Irish Republic.
AREN'T THESE PROTESTANTS IRISH?
Ask them. The answer is a thunderous no, they're British. But this basic issue of identity continues to be questioned to this day — even, most hurtfully, by fellow Britons in neighboring Britain.
ARE CATHOLICS RIGHT TO BE CONCERNED?
Absolutely. Orangemen provided the organizational muscle behind Northern Ireland's creation in 1921 shortly before the rest of Ireland won independence from Britain, binding together Protestants under one anti-Catholic banner determined to stop "Rome rule" from Dublin.
For its first half-century, Northern Ireland was an overtly Orange state with a Protestant-only government. They discriminated against Catholics in housing, jobs and voting power. The marches, given safe passage by a similarly Orange police force, underscored the Catholics' second-class status.
WHICH MEANS RIOTS, RIGHT?
Yep. It's no accident that Act I, Scene I of Northern Ireland's conflict in 1969 began with Catholic hostility to a march: the Apprentice Boys' main annual parade in Londonderry. Days of clashes between Catholic civilians and Protestant police forced Britain to deploy its army as peacekeepers — a fateful decision that inspired the rise of the modern IRA and its aim to overthrow Northern Ireland.
HASN'T THE PEACE PROCESS IMPROVED THINGS?
Mostly yes. Also no.
Nearly two decades of peacemaking have transformed Northern Ireland almost beyond recognition from its blood-stained past. Paramilitary cease-fires by the IRA and outlawed Protestant gangs are underpinned by disarmament, troops have been withdrawn to barracks, Britain has promoted Catholic recruitment to create a balanced police force and a unity Protestant-Catholic government shares power with surprising harmony.
Almost. But the clock turns backward each "marching season" — and increased rioting has been the norm for most summers since 1995.
Editor's note: Shawn Pogatchnik has covered Northern Ireland for The Associated Press since 1991.