Tens of thousands of Protestant hard-liners marched without trouble through Northern Ireland's streets Thursday in an annual event that once ignited conflict with Catholics, but passed peacefully this year, thanks to a succeeding peace process.
The Orange Order marches each July 12th. - an official holiday in Northern Ireland called simply "The Twelfth" - in commemoration of a 1690 victory by the Protestant forces of King William of Orange over the Catholic he ousted from the English throne, James II. Catholics have long loathed the parades and said they were designed to intimidate them.
In the past decade, Catholics led by Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party, tried to block Orangemen from parading through or near Catholic districts. That often triggered riots with both Protestants and British security forces.
But that problem has faded since 2005, after the IRA disarmed and renounced violence so that Sinn Fein could join a new power-sharing government with Protestant leaders.
Reflecting the ever-closer relations between both parts of Ireland, Irish President Mary McAleese invited hundreds of Protestant leaders from Northern Ireland to a "Twelfth" garden party in their honor.
"We now have a climate of peace, partnership, parity of esteem and prosperity as never before on this island," McAleese, a Belfast-born Catholic, told her largely Protestant audience at the presidential mansion in Dublin.
In a sign of changed times, a small group of Orangemen peacefully passed Catholic protesters holding anti-Orange placards at Ardoyne, a traditional IRA stronghold in north Belfast.
In 2005, a parade there was attacked with Molotov cocktails and hand grenades, leaving more than 100 wounded. This year, the two sides remained calm Thursday amid a light police presence.
A leading Sinn Fein official in Northern Ireland's two-month-old government, former IRA car-bomber Gerry Kelly, oversaw the Catholic protest. One of the government's leading Protestant members, Economy Minister Nigel Dodds, marched with the Orangemen.
An estimated 75,000 Orangemen accompanied by fife-and-drum units popularly known as "kick the pope" bands paraded through Belfast and 17 other cities and towns Thursday.
Authorities forecasted little or no trouble with Catholics _ only heavy rains that forced some Orangemen to deploy umbrellas as they marched.
The Orange Order, a Protestant umbrella organization that played a pivotal role in creating Northern Ireland in 1921, has long opposed Britain's direction of the peace process here. It opposed paroling IRA prisoners and sharing power with Sinn Fein.
But the group's major political resolution, read at all 18 rallying points in the middle of Thursday's parades, suggested that even Orangemen are recognizing the reality of former IRA members in their government.
"The commitment of Sinn Fein-IRA to proper democratic government will be constantly monitored and the opportunity presented to them ... is a test which they must not fail," the resolution said.
But the group also accused the IRA of launching hundreds of arson attacks on Orange halls, including several damaged this year, and noted that many Orangemen were killed and maimed in IRA attacks.
"The Orange institution and its members need to hear a sincere and unequivocal apology from the (Irish) Republican Movement," the Orange Order said, using the blanket term for Sinn Fein and the IRA.
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