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Protestant Orangemen march peacefully through N. Ireland

Protestant bands parade through a loyalist part of east Belfast, Northern Ireland, Thursday, July, 12, 2007. Thousands of orange order members and bands paraded across Northern Ireland to celebrate the 1690 Battle of the Boyne when the Protestant King William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James.

Protestant bands parade through a loyalist part of east Belfast, Northern Ireland, Thursday, July, 12, 2007. Thousands of orange order members and bands paraded across Northern Ireland to celebrate the 1690 Battle of the Boyne when the Protestant King William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James.

Tens of thousands of Protestant hard-liners marched without trouble through Belfast and other Northern Ireland cities and towns Thursday in an annual event that used to involve conflict with Catholics but now shows the effects of a succeeding peace process.

The Orange Order marches each July 12 — an official holiday in Northern Ireland called simply “The Twelfth” — in commemoration of a 1690 victory by the forces of a Protestant king, William of Orange, over the Catholic he ousted from the English throne, James II. Catholics have long loathed the parades and said they were designed to intimidate them.

In the past decade, Catholics led by Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party, tried to block Orangemen from parading through or near Catholic districts, frequently triggering riots with both Protestants and British security forces.

But that problem has faded away since 2005 as the IRA disarmed and renounced violence so that Sinn Fein could take part in a new power-sharing government with Protestant leaders.

In one sign of changed times, a small group of Orangemen passed Catholic protesters holding anti-Orange placards at Ardoyne, a traditional IRA power base in north Belfast. In 2005, that parade was attacked with Molotov cocktails and hand grenades at the same spot, leaving more than 100 wounded. But the two sides remained quiet and calm Thursday amid a light police presence.

A leading Sinn Fein official in Northern Ireland’s two-month-old government, former IRA car-bomber Gerry Kelly, oversaw the Catholic protest. One of the government’s leading Protestant members, Economy Minister Nigel Dodds, marched with the Orangemen.

An estimated 75,000 Orangemen accompanied by fife-and-drum units popularly known as “kick the pope” bands were parading through Belfast and 17 other cities and towns Thursday. But authorities forecast little or no trouble with Catholics — only heavy rains that forced some Orangemen to deploy umbrellas as they marched.

The Orange Order, a Protestant umbrella organization that played a pivotal role in creating Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom in 1921, has long opposed Britain’s direction of the peace process here, chiefly because it offered paroles of IRA prisoners and a share of power for Sinn Fein.

But the group’s major political resolution, being read at all 18 rallying points in the middle of Thursday’s parades, suggested that even Orangemen are coming to accept the reality of former IRA members in their government.

“The commitment of Sinn Fein-IRA to proper democratic government will be constantly monitored and the opportunity presented to them … is a test which they must not fail,” the resolution said.

But the group also accused the IRA of launching hundreds of arson attacks on Orange halls, including several damaged this year, and noted that Orangemen were frequently killed and maimed in IRA gun and bomb attacks.

“The Orange institution and its members need to hear a sincere and unequivocal apology from the (Irish) Republican Movement,” the Orange Order said, using the blanket term for Sinn Fein and the IRA.

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