BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Masked and hooded Belfast Catholics hurled gasoline bombs, fireworks and other makeshift weapons at police Monday as the most bitterly divisive day on the Northern Ireland calendar reached an ugly end.
Several rioters and at least seven officers were injured, none seriously, when Irish nationalists in Ardoyne, a militant Catholic enclave of north Belfast, tried to block a parade by the Orange Order, Northern Ireland's major Protestant brotherhood.
Tens of thousands of Orangemen spent Monday mounting hundreds of similar parades across this British territory, almost all of them trouble-free, in an annual stress test for the province's fragile peace.
More than 1,000 Orangemen and their accompanying bandsmen eventually did march down the main road past Ardoyne to the beat of a lone drum — but only after riot police fought an hourlong street battle backed by a surveillance helicopter and three massive mobile water cannons.
At one point, masked Catholic rioters on store rooftops directed a deluge of Molotov cocktails, bricks and golf balls on riot police below. The officers were protected with flame-retardant suits, helmets and shields.
Later, as the water-cannon gunners sought to take rioters' legs out from under them, Catholics wearing scarves over their faces took cover behind low brick walls and post boxes. They threw rocks, bricks, bottles and even planks of wood that bounced harmlessly off the armored sides and metal-grilled windows of the water-cannon vehicles.
The Ardoyne Catholics' showdown with police continued long after the Orangemen had passed through.
Police said a gunman fired at least one live round at police lines but missed. Rioters also stole at least two vehicles, set them on fire and pushed them toward police lines. Officers responded with plastic bullets.
A senior Belfast policeman, Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay, condemned the anti-Orange rioters as offering "the worst possible face of Northern Ireland — a face of bigotry, sectarianism and intolerance."
These were the worst riots in Belfast since 2005, when the same Protestant parade triggered much more intense and dangerous riots on the same road. Then, more than 100 police officers were wounded amid a hail of homemade grenades.
But the aftermath of that violence also illustrates how street clashes rarely rattle wider peacemaking politics in Northern Ireland. Weeks after those 2005 riots, the outlawed Irish Republican Army disarmed and renounced violence, paving the way for the 2007 formation of a new Catholic-Protestant government here.
Northern Ireland's "Twelfth" holiday typically raises community tensions to their highest point of the year as British Protestants celebrate centuries-old victories over Irish Catholics.
The often elderly, conservatively dressed Orangemen are accompanied by so-called "kick the pope" bands whose hard-faced, tattooed members play an odd mix of Gospel and sectarian tunes on shrill flutes and deafening drums.
Monday's parades were preceded by a string of overnight attacks northwest of Belfast that damaged two Orange halls and two Protestant homes, one of them gutted by fire. Catholic youths cheered the blaze and jeered the home's elderly occupants, who vowed to leave behind their Catholic neighbors after 32 years.
And Catholic youths struck two departing Orangemen in the head with rocks in the village of Rasharkin. Three police officers were injured in subsequent scuffles with Catholics, who threw several Molotov cocktails. One rioter was arrested.
During another Orange parade in the city of Armagh, 40 miles (65 kilometers) southwest of Belfast, police evacuated a major street called Friary Road after spotting a small bomb. It detonated, injuring nobody and causing little damage, before British army experts could defuse it using a remote-controlled robot.
No group claimed responsibility but police and politicians blamed IRA dissidents who reject the underground group's 2005 disarmament. Analysts agree that the dissidents' sporadic bombings and shootings stand no chance of forcing Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom, the traditional IRA goal.
Scores of Catholic youths later attacked police on Friary Road with Molotov cocktails and other thrown objects. They also hijacked and burned two cars on the road. Police arrested four rioters.
"The Twelfth" officially commemorates the July 12, 1690, triumph of Protestant King William of Orange versus his Catholic rival for the English throne, James II, at the Battle of the Boyne south of Belfast. This year the parades took place on the 13th because Orangemen — who march beneath banners depicting the British crown on an open Bible — refuse to hold the holiday on a Sunday.
Orangemen once marched wherever they wanted in Northern Ireland, a state created on the back of Orange power as the predominantly Catholic rest of Ireland won independence from Britain in the early 1920s.
Catholic hostility to Protestant parades helped ignite a conflict over Northern Ireland's future that claimed more than 3,600 lives from the late 1960s to mid-1990s, when paramilitary cease-fires finally took hold.
At that time, the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party led protests blocking Orangemen's traditional marching routes in several cities, towns and villages. The tactic brought Northern Ireland to the brink of civil war — and ultimately ended in broad defeat for the Orangemen, who refused to negotiate on their marching rights until it was too late.
Britain punished the Orangemen's stubbornness by imposing bans on parades that encountered the heaviest opposition from Catholics. The Orangemen spent years mounting violent standoffs with British security forces in hopes of regaining lost ground, but eventually gave up.
The Crumlin Road beside Ardoyne is the only remaining parading point in Belfast that inspires recurring violence. There, the Orangemen have no obvious alternative way to march from their lodges to central Belfast and back again.