BELFAST (Reuters) - Police fired water cannon at Catholic youths in Belfast on Thursday after rioting erupted when a small Protestant parade, celebrating a 17th century military victory over Catholic forces, passed their estate.
The violence came at the culmination of a series of parades that pro-British Protestants stage annually in the British-ruled province, a tradition seen as provocative by Irish nationalists who want to be part of a united Ireland.
Three decades of violence between the province’s Catholics and Protestants have largely ended since a peace agreement was signed in 1998, but much of Belfast remains divided along religious lines.
Dozens of youths threw bricks and snooker balls at hundreds of riot police at the point where Catholic and Protestant areas of the city meet. One protester drove a car into a line of armored police jeeps and another set a car on fire.
The trouble began shortly after a parade of 15 members of the Protestant Orange Order walked in silence past a row of shops in the nationalist Ardoyne area, flanked by riot police.
A small group of local residents stood silently each side of the road holding banners saying “residents’ rights are being trampled”.
The parade was smaller than usual because the authorities insisted marchers pass the shops before 4 p.m., too early for most of those attending a mass rally at the edge of the city.
The marchers were greeted by hundreds of supporters waving British flags when they reached mainly Protestant roads a few hundred meters from the Catholic estate.
Most of the 500 or so Orange Order parades across the province, involving hundreds of thousands of marchers, bandsmen and watching crowds, passed peacefully.
Three decades of fighting between mostly Protestant loyalists who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom and Irish nationalists, mainly Catholics, who want it to be part of a united Ireland, tore the province apart during a three-decade period known as the “Troubles.”
A 1998 peace agreement paved the way for a power-sharing government of loyalists and nationalists. Violence has subsided, but police say the threat from dissident groups opposed to the peace deal is higher than at any time since it was signed.
The marchers were marking King William of Orange’s victory over the Roman Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, which helped to secure Protestant supremacy in Ireland.
Pipe bands and drummers from Scotland joined local groups decked in orange banners and British flags for hundreds of marches across the province.
Reporting by Ian Graham; Editing by Conor Humphries and Tim Pearce