BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) - Northern Ireland leaders appealed for calm and police braced for trouble in advance of today's Protestant parades and bonfires on "the Twelfth," an annual sectarian holiday that always inflames tensions with the Catholic minority.
The police commander, Chief Constable Matt Baggott, took the unusual step of importing 630 police officers from England and Scotland to beef up his own 7,000-member force.
Baggott said the reinforcements would be needed to help deter trouble Friday when the major British Protestant brotherhood, the Orange Order, mounts 550 parades in commemoration of a 17th century military victory over Irish Catholics. He said 43 parades, an unusually high number, would pass near potentially hostile Catholic areas.
For more than two centuries, Orangemen have marched to commemorate July 12, 1690, when forces loyal to William of Orange, the newly crowned Protestant king of England, routed the army of the deposed Catholic king, James II, in a river valley south of Belfast. Orangemen march beneath banners portraying the British crown atop an open Bible and proclaim William as defender of their civil and religious liberty on what was then, and now, a mostly Catholic island.
Most Catholics loathe the marches as a Protestant effort to intimidate and insult them, a view underscored by the Orangemen's accompaniment on parade by so-called kick the pope bands of fife and drum playing a mixture of Gospel and sectarian tunes.
Tensions rose before the traditional midnight start to the Protestant festivities: the lighting of towering bonfires decorated provocatively with Irish and Catholic symbols. Firefighters must contend with the toppling of recklessly tall bonfires on to nearby homes and also withstand assaults from the often-drunken mobs gathered near the fires.