By Ian Graham
BELFAST (Reuters) - The two sides of Northern Ireland's sectarian divide are holding talks in advance of the Protestants' annual parades for the first time in an effort to avert riots, officials said on Friday.
Pro-British Protestants stage marches every summer in the British-ruled province, a tradition seen as provocative by Irish nationalists who want to be part of a united Ireland.
Since a peace agreement was signed in 1998, violence between the province's Catholics and Protestants - which had raged on and off for three decades - has largely ended. But much of Belfast remains divided along religious lines.
Members of three Protestant Orange Lodges agreed to hold direct talks with the Catholic Crumlin Ardoyne Residents' Association to try and prevent violence during this year's marches, many of which are held in July.
"Every other year we wait until there is trouble and violence and we suffer for two days and then we try to get it fixed up, so we are trying to be proactive this year," said Alfie McCrory, chairman of the Twaddell and Woodvale Residents' Association, a Protestant group which called for the dialogue.
The Orange Order has previously always refused to talk directly with nationalist resident groups over their parades, which mark the anniversary of the 1690 victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over Roman Catholic King James of England at the Battle of the Boyne, north of Dublin.
Last year there was some violence during the annual July marches but most of the 500 or so parades across the province, involving hundreds of thousands of marchers, bandsmen and watching crowds, passed off peacefully.
In 2012 in the Ardoyne, a Catholic working class area of Belfast close to Protestant neighborhoods, police used water cannon and plastic bullets against Catholic youths hurling petrol bombs and missiles in protest over the parade passing their area.
"The whole community will welcome the fact that progress has been made and we are waiting to see how it will develop," said Father Gary Donegan of the Catholic Holy Cross Church in the Ardoyne.
Politicians welcomed the talks and said they could mark a breakthrough in community relations in the province.
"We all want to see a peaceful resolution to parading issues here," said Peter Robinson, the head of the devolved Northern Irish government.
(Editing by Sam Cage and Gareth Jones)