Police fire plastic bullets at N. Irish march

Andrew Cawthorne,DRUMCREE, Northern Ireland, Reuters

Police fired plastic bullets at stone-throwing Protestant protesters on Sunday as a riot broke out at the end of the traditionally volatile Drumcree parade in Northern Ireland.

Police said at least 24 officers were injured during an hour-long melee in which Protestants furious they could not march past a Catholic neighborhood hurled stones, bricks and bottles at police in full riot gear.

“You scum! This is our road, you can’t stop us,” one of the protesters, in his early 20s, yelled as he rushed towards police with a big rock.

The rock-hurlers were cheered on by members of the hardline Orange Order, wearing traditional bowler hats and orange sashes. Some children also threw stones.

Four of the injured officers were taken to hospital. Witnesses said two policemen were led away with head wounds and one with apparently serious injuries was taken off on a stretcher.

At least two protesters were also injured. Witnesses said one had received a gash from a plastic bullet.

Three people were arrested.

The march, celebrating centuries-old victories over Catholics, was attended by about 1,400 Protestants of the Orange Order.

The violence, which erupted after scores of youths broke through a barrier on a bridge dividing them from a Catholic neighborhood, surprised police.

The police and army had deliberately scaled back security at the march, where huge clashes have broken out in the past, after being assured paramilitaries were staying away to help defuse tensions in the volatile British-ruled province.

The army hastily erected a mammoth metal barrier to keep Protestants from entering the Catholic area. Two water cannon were brought in but not used.

Assistant Chief Constable Stephen White, in charge of the security operation, condemned the attacks on his men.

“I must say I’m very disappointed,” White told reporters.

“I’ve worn the uniform all my adult life trying to serve all sides in this community and to be spat upon and have my officers spat upon and having stones thrown at us as we are trying to afford the dignity this institution asked us to afford to it is very disappointing.”

The incident adds to recent tensions in the province where similar rioting in the capital Belfast and elsewhere has jeopardized a peace process begun with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The accord was meant to put an end of three decades of sectarian strife between pro-British Protestants and Catholics seeking to unite the province of 1.6 million people with Ireland.

David Burrows, deputy district master of the Portadown Orange Men, appealed for calm. “At the end of the day, this doesn’t help our cause and everyone here can see that, many in the world will see,” he said.

Earlier, Burrows had called the barrier blocking the road to the Catholic area “an obscenity”.

An Irish tri-color flag was burned during the violence and a television cameraman was pushed into a nearby stream as protesters turned on media whom they accused of being more sympathetic to Catholics.

The marchers of the Orange Order — named after the 17th century Protestant King William of Orange — lodged a protest over the blockade.

The Protestant celebrations mark William’s Battle of the Boyne victory on July 12, 1690 over Catholic King James II.

Catholics, many of whom are opposed to British rule, view the Orange Order’s march as provocative triumphalism.

The Order marches from Portadown to Drumcree church and back every year, but has been banned since 1998 from passing through the Catholic Garvaghy Road.

That has stopped clashes along the road, but the Orangemen have turned the march into a protest against what they see as a denial of their right of movement.

The hamlet of Drumcree has become a symbol of the centuries-old Catholic Protestant strife that sparked a guerrilla war in the late 1960s in which more than 3,000 died.