BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — It's billed as Northern Ireland's most tension-packed day.
But at press time yesterday, British security forces had managed to keep Protestant and Catholic parades separated. First, the forces blocked a bridge with steel walls, concrete blocks, and barbed wire, preventing a small Protestant parade from passing by a Catholic part of Belfast.
Later, more than 20,000 Protestant members and supporters of the Orange Order brotherhood - marching beneath banners proclaiming "What we have we hold" - rerouted their usual Belfast parade to a park just across from Lower Ormeau, the Catholic area at the center of the dispute.
Hundreds of police and British soldiers packed side streets in south Belfast to make it impossible for Protestant marchers and Lower Ormeau's Catholic protesters to come into direct contact.
An estimated 80,000 Orangemen were marching at 18 locations across Northern Ireland. Officially their mass mobilization each July 12 commemorates Protestant King William of Orange's battlefield triumph over the Catholic-led forces of James II three centuries ago. In practice, it's designed to demonstrate which side of the community is stronger in this Protestant-majority state.
The one-sided festivities began overnight in hard-line Protestant parts of Northern Ireland with massive bonfires, impromptu concerts by bands of fife and drum, and fireworks displays. For the first time in several years, police reported no serious incidents of violence.
Nonetheless, Catholic politicians criticized the Orange Order's decision to reroute their parade to Ormeau Park as deliberate intimidation of the many Catholic families who live near the park.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair planned to introduce legislation yesterday that is key to the creation of the executive branch for the province.