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Perennial clashes dominate Irish streets again
July 6, 2000
BELFAST (AP) - Police commanders and politicians appealed Wednesday for Protestant hard-liners to call off the street protests that have caused rioting, fear and destruction across Northern Ireland.
At daybreak, Belfast commuters picked their way carefully down roads strewn with shattered glass, charred rubble and occasional burned-out vehicles, the product of a third consecutive night of unrest in hard-line Protestant neighborhoods. In the most serious incident, unidentified gunmen exchanged fire with police in north Belfast but nobody was reported injured.
The rioters' mounting attacks on police and Catholic properties are designed to force British authorities to reverse their decision to bar a traditional Protestant parade from a Catholic neighborhood this Sunday. The now-annual dispute first triggered widespread violence in 1996, when police eventually reversed a decision to block the same parade by the Orange Order.
This time Northern Ireland's police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, has responded firmly when challenged, particularly in farm fields near Portadown, 30 miles (50 kms) southwest of Belfast.
There, security forces for the past three nights have prevented Protestant mobs from reaching the nearby Garvaghy Road, where most of Portadown's Catholic minority lives.
Late Tuesday, Protestant men within mob of 500 hurled firecrackers and rocks, fired ball bearings from slingshots, and squirted acid from syringes at rows of riot police, who were heavily girded with body armor, helmets, shields and flame-retardent uniforms. Police said nine officers suffered injuries ranging from acid burns to punctured eardrums.
In response the police commander, Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, who oversaw the operation, deployed two mobile water cannons on loan from Belgian police - the first time such riot-control weapons had been used in Northern Ireland since the early 1970s.
After repeatedly dousing the crowd, riot police with clubs and locked-together shields pushed protesters back up a hill to the Anglican church that is the focal point for the annual march. They arrested four people and the rest gradually dispersed.
Leaders of the Orange Order, Northern Ireland's major Protestant fraternal group with more than 50,000 members, said they would continue to call for supporters to rally at the confrontation point and to block roads across the British territory. They say they're determined to march down the Garvaghy Road back into Portadown on Sunday.
Flanagan and politicians - from the province's two major Catholic-supported parties and the biggest Protestant-supported party, the Ulster Unionists - called that position irresponsible.
"You cannot call people onto the roads and then be able to control events. We've learned that lesson year after year," said Reg Empey, an Ulster Unionist member of Northern Ireland's new Protestant-Catholic administration, the cornerstone of a 1998 peace accord.
"The leadership of the Orange Order have a very heavy responsibility to call off the protests on the hill, and the protests all over Northern Ireland which they had asked for," said Brid Rodgers, who represents the Social Democratic and Labor Party, the major Catholic-supported party in Northern Ireland, on the power-sharing administration.
"There is nothing at all that justifies shooting incidents or throwing bricks," said Paul Berry, a member of the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party. "But we must understand that there is great frustration within the Protestant unionist community over the rights that are being taken away from us."