Protestants fight Northern Ireland police preventing parade through Portadown

Sunday, July 7th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PORTADOWN, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Protestant hard-liners battled riot police Sunday after being barred from parading through the main Catholic section of Portadown, an annual confrontation that often triggers sectarian violence across Northern Ireland.

The rioters, cheered on by several hundred members and supporters of the Orange Order brotherhood, injured 24 officers, four seriously, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said.

Police charged into the mob after rioters battered down most of a 7-foot-high steel barrier across the roadway. They arrested three men and fired three plastic bullets, seriously injuring a rioter's arm. Several other Protestants suffered bruises and small cuts.

The violence abated once British army engineers, protected by the riot police, erected a taller steel barrier. Police later fired water cannons at young men trying to cut through barbed-wire fences in surrounding pastures.

The violence dashed police hopes that this year's standoff with Orangemen could end peacefully, as it did last year. It also set the tone for a potentially dangerous week involving hundreds of divisive parades by the Orange Order, the province's major Protestant fraternal group.

Police and politicians predicted that the marches, combined with the militant Catholic opposition they inspire, would exacerbate street tensions in Belfast, where rioting frequently has erupted in the most polarized neighborhoods in recent months.

Local Orange Order leaders, wearing bowler hats and orange vestments, attended their traditional church service at a rural Anglican church outside Portadown before marching downhill to the barricade blocking their 2,000-strong parade from passing Catholic homes on nearby Garvaghy Road.

Assistant Chief Constable Stephen White told Orange leaders that police were enforcing an order from the government-appointed Parades Commission, which every year since 1998 has banned Orangemen from entering the Garvaghy Road in hopes of preventing clashes.

Portadown Orange leader Harold Gracey told the crowd from a podium in front of the barrier, ``We are staying on this hill night after night, Sunday after Sunday, until this problem is resolved.''

The Orange Order, founded in 1795 near Portadown, was instrumental in the founding of Northern Ireland 80 years ago as a predominantly Protestant state linked with Britain.

But the organization's influence has waned in recent years, particularly since its leadership rejected the 1998 Good Friday peace accord establishing a joint Catholic-Protestant government for the territory.