Masked Catholic rioters have injured 40 police officers during two nights of violence that Belfast political and church leaders were powerless to stop, a senior police commander said Wednesday as the city cleared away torched cars and street rubble.
Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay said leaders on both the British Protestant and Irish Catholic sides of the community made "huge efforts" to avoid riots during Tuesday's annual marches by the Orange Order, a hard-line Protestant brotherhood.
But he said a hard core of around 250 mostly teenage Catholics were determined to attack the police units that had deployed around Belfast to prevent any direct Catholic-Protestant clashes. The worst flashpoint was a north Belfast enclave called Ardoyne, where large crowds watched the teens pelt police units for five hours with Molotov cocktails, paving stones, wood planks and even stolen furniture.
Finlay said Ardoyne leaders observed largely peaceful protests against an Orange Order march that passed near the district, a power base for both the Irish Republican Army and IRA dissidents opposed to the outlawed group's conversion to peace. While the IRA has stopped attacking police, the dissidents still seek to kill them.
Once the official Ardoyne protests ended, Finlay said, "we really began to get intense violence from the young people that nobody really seemed able to control."
Sixteen officers were injured during the Ardoyne clashes, including an officer pictured in flames in Wednesday's morning Belfast papers. Finlay said that officer was already back on duty after suffering only minor burns; his head-to-toe flame retardant boiler suit under his body armor had protected him.
Twenty-four others were injured in riots that preceded the Orange Order parades, which Catholics long have tried to block from passing their districts. British authorities have gradually restricted Orange parade routes over the past 15 years, leaving Ardoyne as one of the few bitterly disputed points left on the Belfast map.
Orangemen march each July 12 in official commemoration of a 1690 military victory by the Protestant king of the day, William of Orange, versus the Catholic he had deposed from the throne, James II. "The Twelfth," as the event is known, is an official holiday in Northern Ireland but tens of thousands, particularly Catholics, mark the occasion by staying in their homes or going on vacation to escape the tensions.
Catholic youths also rioted in the second-largest city, Londonderry, and in several other towns and villages.
Finlay said police have arrested 26 suspected rioters so far _ including a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old _ and charged five of them with rioting.
The politician who represents north Belfast in British Parliament, Nigel Dodds, was among the Orangemen who marched past Ardoyne to the brotherhood's local lodge further up the same road. He said Catholics needed to accept that the major road running beside the area should be "a shared space."
But Gerry Kelly, the area's leading politician from the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party, said Orangemen had to stop using the route unless they could negotiate a deal with locals. The Orangemen have shunned such direct talks for decades.