BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — Hundreds of police reinforcements from Britain were deployed on Belfast’s rubble-strewn streets Saturday after Protestant riots over a blocked march left 32 officers, a senior lawmaker and at least eight rioters wounded.
Northern Ireland’s police commander, Chief Constable Matt Baggott, blamed leaders of the Orange Order brotherhood for inciting six hours of running street battles in two parts of Belfast that subsided early Saturday. He derided their leadership as reckless and said they had no plan for controlling crowds they had summoned.
The anti-Catholic fraternity’s annual July 12 marches always raise tensions with the Irish Catholic minority. Over each of the previous four years, Irish republican militants in Ardoyne have attacked police after an Orange parade passed by that Catholic district in north Belfast, the most bitterly divided part of the capital.
This year British authorities ordered Orangemen to avoid the stretch of road nearest Ardoyne, an order that police enforced by blocking their parade route with seven armored vehicles. Orange leaders took that as a challenge and rallied thousands of supporters to the spot, where some attacked the vehicles and the lines of heavily armored officers behind them.
Baggott said the Orange leaders behaved recklessly and should not duck responsibility for the mayhem.
“Having called thousands of people to protest, they had no plan and no control,” said Baggott, an Englishman who has commanded the Police Service of Northern Ireland since 2009.
Orange leaders insisted the blockade decision was the problem, not the alcohol-fueled fury of their own members. But they backed off their original threat to mount indefinite street protests across Northern Ireland and ordered a suspension of protests early Saturday. The order’s leaders declined requests for interviews.
That climb-down came too late for north Belfast’s Protestant member of British Parliament, Nigel Dodds. An Orangeman himself, Dodds had gone to the riot’s front line to appeal for calm — and ended up getting knocked unconscious by a brick that fell short of police lines. He was released from the hospital Saturday.
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service said it ferried eight wounded civilians from the riots. But other rioters undoubtedly nursed their wounds away from hospitals, because those admitted for riot-related injuries can be identified and arrested by police.
Britain’s Cabinet minister for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, said it was “vitally important for the Orange Order to make clear now that their protests have come to an end. It would be disastrous if we were to see a recurrence of last night’s violence over the next few days.”
On Saturday, Baggott received 400 more officers from England, Scotland and Wales to boost his force’s overall strength on the streets above 5,000, including more than 600 officers already imported from Britain.
This is the first time police from other parts of the United Kingdom have been deployed against Northern Ireland rioters. The approach stems from Northern Ireland’s recent peaceful hosting of the Group of Eight summit, when officers from Britain received anti-riot training before that brief, uneventful assignment here last month.
But the sudden need for reinforcements also suggests that the Northern Ireland police, though riot-savvy and heavily armed, lack sufficient numbers to cope with their homeland’s seasonal flare-ups of mob violence.
Since the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998, Northern Ireland police numbers have been cut nearly in half and, since 2007, British troops have stopped providing backup as part of wider efforts to make the country seem normal. Reform of the once-overwhelmingly Protestant force has, within a decade, produced an organization with 30 percent Catholic officers today.
Such rapid change has rattled Protestants and influenced their rising alienation from the police, most vividly demonstrated during widespread street blockades throughout December and January. The trigger then was a surprise decision by Catholic members of Belfast City Council to sharply reduce the flying of the British flag outside City Hall. As with the increasing restrictions on Orange parade routes, Protestants saw the public space for their British identity being challenged as never before.
During Friday’s street fighting, rioters shouted anti-Catholic and anti-Irish epithets at officers and mocked their allegiance by draping their vehicles in the green, white and orange flags of the Republic of Ireland.
The Orange Order, founded in 1795 at a time of rising economic competition with Catholics, long served as an essential umbrella for politicians to unite Protestants from many bickering denominations into one powerful force. Without the order, Northern Ireland might have lacked the organizational muscle necessary for the territory’s creation in 1921, months before the mostly Catholic rest of Ireland won independence from Britain.
Their July 12 parades officially commemorate a 17th-century battlefield victory over Catholics. But in practical terms, the mass military-themed mobilizations — including 550 on Friday alone — provide a graphic annual test of whether Protestants still wield control in a land where the government and police for decades were almost exclusively Protestant.
These days, most of Belfast has a growing Catholic majority and Protestant communities must hold their ground with high walls of brick, steel and barbed wire called “peace lines.” The Northern Ireland unity government forged by the 1998 peace deal is half Catholic by design, with a former Irish Republican Army commander as co-leader. And a British-appointed Parades Commission, stubbornly boycotted by Orange leaders, wields the power to impose restrictions that police must enforce.