November 22, 2002

Masked Gunmen Mark N.Ireland Protestant Anniversary

Masked Protestant guerrillas fired shots in the air as pro-British loyalists lit huge fires across Northern Ireland in the early hours of Friday to start celebrations police fear could turn violent.

At two events to usher in the "Twelfth of July" anniversary along the militantly Protestant Shankill Road area of Belfast, gunmen stepped out of the shadows at midnight to fire volleys in front of cheering crowds.

The shows of strength by the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) came as vast pyres were torched across the province in the traditional loyalist marking of a 17th century battlefield victory over Catholics.

The date is the most volatile time of Northern Ireland's tense marching season, taking place this year against a backdrop of resurgent street violence in the British-ruled province.

At the lower Shankill Road, hundreds of Protestants, including many children, chanted "U-U-UFF" as the six male and one female guerrillas appeared to the sound of U.S. singer Tina Turner's "Simply the Best" blasting out of a stereo system.

In a statement read out before the shots, the leader of the group said the UFF continued to support Northern Ireland's peace process. But, he added a chilling warning: "We cannot stand by and do nothing while Protestant families in interface areas fear for their lives.

"We have exercised restraint so far, but if these attacks continue we will have no course of action but to initiate a measured response."

As crowds of Protestants loyalists gathered on wasteland in their neighborhoods to watch youths light the towering piles of wood, police warned of possible violence later on Friday.

Tens of thousands of Protestants were due to march in hundreds of parades celebrating Protestant King William III's July 12, 1690 victory over deposed Catholic King James II at Ireland's Battle of the Boyne. While most of the marches are largely peaceful, where parades pass through or near Catholic neighborhoods they can spark violence.


Belfast's chief police officer accused Catholic republicans of planning a riot when a Protestant parade passes through a flashpoint district. Police also seized hundreds of bottles in the city they said were for petrol bombs and carried out two controlled explosions after reports of a device in a van.

"This isn't black propaganda, this is a real concern about what some evil people up there are planning," Assistant Chief Constable Alan McQuillan told reporters.

McQuillan said republican guerrillas planned to bus hundreds of youths into the Ardoyne area to confront security forces at the most contentious parades by the Protestant Orange Order.

Earlier, Belfast's mayor Alex Maskey, the first member of the Irish Republican Army's political ally Sinn Fein to hold the post, appealed for calm but said there was "a dangerous cocktail coming together that could lead to further disorder."

Sinn Fein rubbished the police claims, saying they were "an attempt...to lay the ground for an assault against the nationalist (Catholic) community of Ardoyne."

Moderate politicians were holding their breath in the hope that the "Twelth of July" would pass off peacefully and not add to violence already undermining the 1998 Good Friday power-sharing peace agreement supposed to end three decades of sectarian war.

A riot at last Sunday's Drumcree parade by the hard-line Protestant Orange Order left 31 policemen injured. The previous weekend, Catholic rioters battled police in Belfast.

At bonfires all over Belfast ushering in Friday's anniversary, huge cheers went up as the flames tore into Irish tricolor flags and other symbols of Catholic nationalists who want to unite the province with the Irish Republic to the south.

"Burn, you bastards! Burn!" shouted Nick Moore, covered in tattoos of Britain's Union Jack, draped in a paramilitary flag and swigging beer in the Sandy Row area of central Belfast.

In a bizarre mixture of tribal animosity and family fun, mothers brought babies in prams, and couples danced, while youths drank and cheered at bonfire events, mostly held on waste ground in working class neighborhoods.

Fearing violence and taking advantage of a holiday weekend, many Northern Irish had headed out of Belfast and other major towns for trips to the countryside.

(China Daily July 12, 2002)

In This Series
British Queen Visits Northern Ireland



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