Protestant rallies shutter businesses in Northern Ireland


BELFAST, Northern Ireland - Protestant hard-liners angry over restrictions on their traditional July parades mounted mass street protests yesterday, forcing shops to close early and inspiring more violence across Northern Ireland.

Despite calls for peaceful protests by the leaders of the Orange Order brotherhood, trouble broke out within minutes in Belfast and other towns.

Along the so-called "peace line," a network of fences and walls separating British Protestant and Irish Catholic communities in west Belfast, youths on both sides traded salvos of bottles and rocks.

Twenty-five miles to the southwest in Lurgan, riot police intervened to keep Protestants from walking into the Catholic side of the town, among the most bitterly polarized in Northern Ireland.

And in Portadown, the mostly Protestant town at the center of debate over Orange Order parades, riot police armed with shields, clubs and attack dogs pushed demonstrators out of an intersection. The crowd responded by pelting police with rocks and bottles and torching a stolen car.

Business leaders in Belfast, Portadown and several smaller towns advised shops to close an hour before the protests to allow workers enough time to get away. Almost everyone followed the advice, as normally bustling shopping precincts became ghost towns by 4 p.m.

The business leaders condemned Orange tactics, saying the Protestant fraternal group was placing its own disputed right to march past hostile Catholic neighborhoods above everyone else's rights.

"Most businessmen didn't want to close their premises, and certainly do not support what the Orangemen are doing, but they had a duty to ensure that their staff could get home safely," said Bill Jeffrey, chairman of the Northern Ireland Small Businesses Federation.

The mass exodus of motorists meant that when groups of Orangemen and their supporters began rallying in predominantly Protestant parts of Belfast - some carrying placards reading "Respect our culture, restore our rights" - they had comparatively little traffic to snarl.

Riot police and British army helicopters kept watch from a distance over Protestant crowds blocking roads. Each protest ranged in size from a few dozen to several hundred. Some were composed mostly of women and children, while others had a more threatening air, with anti-Catholic terrorists among the participants.

David Trimble, the Protestant leader of Northern Ireland's new power-sharing government and an Orangeman himself, warned that anyone committing violence this week "will only bring dishonor and disgrace on the cause they profess to support."

Trimble argued that the Orange leaders should drop their refusal to enter direct negotiations to parade.

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