The enormous difficulties of building bridges between Northern Ireland's two sectarian communities were illustrated on Sunday, when widespread rioting followed a march by Protestants through a Catholic neighborhood roughly 25 miles southwest of Belfast.
For the past three years, the annual marching season has been a source of violence throughout the province.
At the heart of the most recent violence is the British government's decision on Sunday to allow some 1,000 members of the province's Protestant Orange Lodge, supporters of union with Britain, to march through a mainly Catholic district of Portadown under the protection of armed soldiers.
Northern Ireland Secretary Marjorie Mowlam, who approved the decision, is backing a claim by the province's police chief, Ronnie Flanagan, that allowing the march to take place was "a choice between two evils" and "necessary to save lives." Mr. Flanagan said the Orangemen's march had been approved not on political grounds, but "purely as a result of a security assessment."
"We had to avoid loss of human life. That was our priority," he said, referring to the decision to permit the march. It was made over the strong protests of Northern Ireland's Catholic community, and indicates Flanagan's view that Catholic anger is less of a security problem than the displeasure of Protestant loyalists, who would have been upset if the Orangemen were not allowed to go ahead with their march.
Ms. Mowlam commented: "I know many in the nationalist [Catholic] community will be angered by this decision. It has been dictated by circumstances. I would have preferred it otherwise."
But Mitchel McLaughlin, chairman of Sinn Fein, political wing of the Irish Republican Army, disagrees. He insists that the new Labour government authorized a "shameful cave-in" by allowing Orange Order members to parade through Catholic districts.
Police and security forces blocked off entire streets inhabited by Catholics to enable the Orangemen to march down a main thoroughfare unmolested. Catholics later complained that by confining them to their homes, Flanagan had effectively prevented them from attending their own Sunday services.
Responding to Sinn Fein's complaints, Ulster Unionist political leader David Trimble, a prominent Orange Lodge supporter, said that by authorizing the march, Mowlam and Flanagan were "merely safeguarding the right of lodge members to exercise their civil rights and defend their own traditions."
After the marchers had passed through the contentious area, Catholic residents emerged from side streets and began pelting the withdrawing security forces with gasoline bombs. Police responded with plastic bullets. Rioting subsequently broke out in other Northern Ireland cities, including Londonderry and Belfast. After the violence erupted, Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief strategist, urged protesters on, saying that street protests were "the best way of showing discontent" with Flanagan's handling of the march. Some observers later commented that the protests appeared orchestrated in advance.
Hopes of restarting the Northern Ireland peace process in the near future may be frustrated due to the violence. Mr. McGuinness said the peace process had been dealt "a serious blow," with many Catholics "alienated by another case of British injustice."
In addition, both sides appear to be setting their sights on Saturday, July 12, a key date for the province's Protestants. On that day in 1690, the Protestant William, Prince of Orange, defeated James II, his Catholic rival for the throne, at the Battle of the Boyne.
Every year, the anniversary of this event is marked by demonstrations by the Orange Order and its sympathizers, wishing to proclaim their "Britishness." Catholic militants have vowed to block at least two of the planned marches that day.