LONDON, United Kingdom — Violence has erupted in the Northern Ireland capital of Belfast after police blocked a Protestant parade from marching past a Catholic neighborhood this weekend, triggering a furious and volatile response from marchers.
Police officers from around the UK were en route to Belfast Monday after the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) called for assistance in containing a conflict that injured dozens and revealed simmering tensions in underserved working-class neighborhoods of the up-and-coming capital.
A pipe bomb exploded near a group of police officers at 5 p.m. Monday evening in Ardoyne, a poor and predominantly Catholic north Belfast neighborhood, the BBC reported. No one was injured.
At Friday's protests, moments after local parliamentarian Nigel Dodds appealed for calm in front of television cameras, a projectile thrown from the crowd struck the lawmaker and knocked him unconscious. He was taken to the hospital and released Saturday morning.
“It was visceral,” Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr was quoted as saying of the violence in the Belfast Telegraph. “If you watch the footage of some of those people involved in attacking police lines on Friday night, particularly on Woodvale Road, their behavior was almost animalistic.”
The months from April to August are known in Northern Ireland as “marching season,” a period of frequent parades marking anniversaries and other holidays for both pro-British unionists and Irish republicans.
The highlight of the unionist parade calendar is July 12, a holiday that commemorates the 1690 Battle of the Boyne in which Protestant King William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James II.
Parades have often been a flashpoint for sectarian clashes.
On July 9, Northern Ireland’s Parades Commission ruled that the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternity, would not be allowed to march down a 300-meter stretch of Crumlin Road that passes Ardoyne.
The “ludicrous decision,” as the unionist Grand Orange Lodge in Ireland called it, was largely interpreted by unionist groups as an affront to Protestant identity.
When police in riot gear enforced the Parades Commission order, violence erupted.
Helicopter footage of the riots taken by PSNI and uploaded to YouTube showed a mob of hundreds crushing against a line of riot police and parked police vans at the riot’s epicenter on Woodvale Road.
Furious men — some shirtless, others wearing the insignia of various Orange Order lodges — kicked, screamed and hurled projectiles at police officers, while others beat drums and danced in the street and on top of police vans. One man can be seen lighting an Irish tricolor flag on fire.
A second video uploaded to YouTube by a user called MUFC1963 showed riot police officers dragging away injured colleagues and at least one protester struck in the head by the blast of a water cannon.
A third video posted by YouTube user Chris Maginnis showed the start of the confrontation between marchers and police. The atmosphere at first looks like a crowded street party, but grows more tense as drum- and banner-wielding marchers approach the police barricade. Some of the marchers wield ceremonial swords, which police say were later used to strike officers.
“Some of the leadership in the Orange Order need to reflect whether they provided the responsible leadership,” Chief Constable Matt Baggott said in the PSNI footage. “Having called thousands of people to protest, they had no plan and no control. And rather than being responsible, I think the word for that is reckless.”
Some 44 police officers sustained injuries including suspected broken bones and head wounds. At least 49 people aged 15 to 52 had been arrested as of Monday, the Belfast Telegraph reported.
In a statement posted to their website Monday, the Orange Order’s Belfast arm claimed that crowds of people were already at the main riot site on Woodvale Road when the marchers arrived, and that the crowd had become angered by the size of the police presence.
The group also said that peaceful marchers were attacked by protesters from the predominantly Catholic Short Strand neighborhood. The Order blamed the disorder on the Parades Commission’s decision.
“The violence, which we condemn, cannot be used as an excuse for not addressing the issues that have been raised by this ludicrous determination [concerning] a shared future, community relations and Nationalist’s intolerance,” the statement read.
The violence was concentrated in a few spots in working-class neighborhoods in north and east Belfast, a city whose tidy center betrays few visible scars of the sectarian battles that turned the capital into a war zone for much of the 1970s, '80s and '90s.
The weekend’s violence was disappointing, Belfast locals said, but not surprising.
“There have been problems at Ardoyne every Twelfth for at least the last two or three years,” said Alan Meban, a Belfast-based political commentator.
While the paramilitary groups that terrorized the region for so many decades have laid down their arms, poverty and unemployment in Belfast have helped to feed lingering sectarian tensions in the city’s roughest neighborhoods.
After several years of relative peace following the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Agreement, observers and Belfast citizens were dismayed earlier this year when riots broke out over a decision to remove the Union Jack flag from Belfast City Hall.
Relations have grown particularly tense between the PSNI and working-class unionists, many of whom believe that police — once almost entirely dominated by Protestants — have sold them out.
Graffiti in Belfast spotted in April presaged the rage visible on marchers’ faces in the riot videos. “F[*]ck the PSNI,” a wall in one neighborhood declared.
Another read “PSNI Taig” — a derogatory term meaning Catholic.