By Alex Richardson
Mon 12 July, 2004 02:34

BELFAST (Reuters) - Huge bonfires have been lit in Protestant areas
across Northern Ireland and masked gunmen have fired shots in the air
ahead of a day of parades marking centuries-old battlefield victories
over Roman Catholics.

Towering piles of wooden pallets and tyres were torched at midnight
to herald the start of the "Twelfth" on Monday, the peak of the
summer marching calendar and a time of heightened sectarian tensions
in the British-ruled province.

In a run-down Protestant neighbourhood of north Belfast, five gunmen
from the outlawed Ulster Defence Association (UDA), dressed in combat
fatigues and balaclavas, fired a volley of shots in the air in front
of a cheering crowd.

"We can assure you that so long as there is republican violence on
our streets we will oppose it as we have always done," said the
leader in a statement read before the display. "We are better
prepared now than at any time in the past."

The UDA, like its Catholic republican foes, says it is observing a
ceasefire, but armed "shows of strength" remain an annual feature of
the midnight fires in some of the tougher districts of Belfast and

On Sunday angry Protestant politicians had met Britain's Northern
Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy to protest against restrictions imposed
on a contentious parade in Belfast organised by the Orange Order, the
British province's largest Protestant brotherhood.

"I would urge all political and community representatives to redouble
their efforts in the coming days of heightened tensions," Murphy said
in a statement afterwards.

"I understand the frustrations of many involved, but it is in the
interests of everyone in Northern Ireland to be able to enjoy a
peaceful and dignified Twelfth of July."


The Orange Order will hold parades across the province on Monday to
mark William of Orange's defeat of deposed Catholic King James II at
the Battle of the Boyne on July 12, 1690 that cemented Protestant
ascendancy on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Most parades are uncontroversial, but a few which pass near Catholic
neighbourhoods are bitterly resented and the "Twelfth" celebrations
invariably sharpen sectarian divisions between the pro-British
Protestant majority and pro-Irish Catholic minority.

In 2003 a huge effort by grassroots community workers helped deliver
one of the most peaceful "Twelfths" for decades, but this year the
temperature has been raised by a row over a march in a flashpoint
district of north Belfast on Monday evening.

The Orange Order has urged Protestants to support protests against
the Parades Commission's ban on bands and followers accompanying
Orangemen as they pass the Catholic Ardoyne district, scene of
violent clashes in past years.

Orangemen, who march to the accompaniment of pipes, drums and
accordions, say the parade follows the only available route for them
to return home. Ardoyne residents say it is an anti-Catholic display
designed to intimidate them.

"The Parades Commission has undermined weeks and months of good work
on the ground," Nigel Dodds, an Orangeman and senior member of the
hardline Democratic Unionist Party, said after the meeting with

"The decision to ban bands accompanying the Orange Lodges on their
return home on the Twelfth ... and the impact on residents trying to
make their way home ... has led to a difficult and potentially
disastrous situation," he added.

The Parades Commission was set up by Britain in 1997 to rule on
contentious marches

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