BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) - Irish Catholic militants attacked riot police Thursday in a polarized corner of Belfast as the most divisive day on Northern Ireland's calendar reached a typically ugly end - and yet managed, amid the smoke and chaos, to break some new ground for peacemaking.
More than three hours of violence in the hardline Catholic Ardoyne district marked the fourth straight year the area has descended into street battles following the annual passage of Protestant marchers from the Orange Order brotherhood.
Massive Orange parades across Northern Ireland each July 12 - an official holiday that commemorates the Protestant side's victory in 17th-century religious warfare - often stoke conflict with Catholics, who despise the annual marches as a Protestant show of superiority.
But in recent years, as British authorities have restricted the Protestants' march routes, a drab stretch of road that passes a row of Ardoyne shops has become the focal point for province-wide animosity. There, the decades-old battle for supremacy between the British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority wages a yearly test of wills, with heavily armored police stuck in the middle.
A British government-appointed Parades Commission sought to defuse the Ardoyne conflict this year by ordering the Orangemen to pass through the area by 4 p.m., three hours sooner than normal. Protestant leaders grudgingly accepted the deadline, and all sides agreed this gesture kept a bad situation from getting even worse.
The Parades Commission and police also permitted Ardoyne residents for the first time to stage their own march on the road a few hours later in a bid to balance competing rights. That second gesture was overshadowed by violence.
The carefully choreographed sectarian dance on the disputed road demonstrated graphically how, despite a two-decade peace process and five years of a joint Catholic-Protestant government, Northern Ireland at grass-roots level still faces a long journey to achieve reconciliation. Indeed, Protestant officials of the unity government took part in the Orange parade, while some of their Catholic counterparts stood with the Ardoyne protesters.
And yet both sides' leaders said the dispute would do nothing to derail their continued cooperation the rest of the year.
Orangemen, unable to meet the 4 p.m. deadline on foot, considered mounting a standoff with police in a bid to force their full march through. Their leaders insisted they had to defend their right to freedom of assembly, fearing that once banned from a particular stretch of road they would never be permitted to return.
But fearful that a standoff would inevitably end in violent clashes between Protestants and police, Orange leaders decided to observe the deadline and compromise - while still maintaining their territorial claim to march on the road.
They sent a token group of a half-dozen members by bus to march along that short stretch of road past the Ardoyne shops. Police girded in flame-retardant boiler suits, visored helmets and shields flanked the tiny Orange procession as several hundred Protestants, many waving Union Jacks, cheered the scene from one side of the thoroughfare.
On the other side, masked Catholic youths were already stockpiling makeshift weapons for the night's fight ahead. Denied a decent Orange provocation, the Irish side appeared hell-bent on confronting the police regardless.
Several youths smashed their way into a parked silver BMW, pushed it toward police lines and set it on fire. A police armored car rammed the obstruction into a sidewalk, then a mobile water cannon doused the flames and turned its jets on the growing crowd of rioters.
Soon the Ardoyne crowd, fueled by militants from other hardline Catholic parts of Belfast, swelled to more than 1,000 on two narrow side streets.
In a bid to defuse the tensions, police permitted the Ardoyne residents to stage their own march on Crumlin Road - even though the unruly procession passed extremely close to an angry crowd of a few hundred Protestants. The Catholics bore a banner at the front that read "Ardoyne residents have rights too."
Both sides traded vulgar verbal abuse. Masked, hooded youths within the much larger Catholic group tossed bottles and stones at the Protestants, who retaliated in kind. Soon salvos of bricks, golf balls and even planks of wood were flying back and forth over the helmeted heads of the police, who saturated the area to ensure that the two sides could not get within punching distance of the other.
Before the confrontation, Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party, appealed to both sides not to attack the police and to avoid provoking each other. He said the crux of the problem was the Orangemen's decades-old refusal to negotiate directly with anti-Orange groups from Catholic districts.
"The Orange (Order) should have their day, but the people in the host community have a right to be talked to," Adams said.
Commentators agree the Orangemen's boycott on direct contact with the enemy appears anachronistic given that Northern Ireland since 2007 has had a unity government jointly led by Orangemen and Sinn Fein, who do talk and work together.
But the Ardoyne conflict also defies easy resolution because of the tight confines of Belfast geography. Local Orangemen want to walk back to their lodge from downtown Belfast, and Crumlin Road is the only direct link between the two.