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A massive unionist bonfire dwarfs the houses near by in the Shankill area of West Belfast, Northern Ireland, on July 10, 2014. Thousands of bonfires have been built in Protestant areas across Northern Ireland to be lit on Eleventh Night, the eve of July 12, when Protestants commemorate the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. / Peter Morrison, AP

BELFAST, Northern Ireland - The Troubles here ended in the late 1990s, when Catholic nationalists seeking independence from Britain buried the hatchet with Protestant unionists loyal to the crown after 30 years of bloodshed.

But lingering animosity between the two sides is threatening to flare up again amid Protestant complaints that British authorities are forcing them to cut short a parade on Saturday, the biggest day of the province's so-called Marching Season.

Many Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland view the Protestants' drum-pounding parades as sectarian and intimidating. During the Troubles, the events triggered fighting and riots, but under a power-sharing deal enshrined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Catholics are supposed to respect Protestant traditions such as marches in areas designated as shared spaces.

First Minister Peter Robinson, a Protestant who is the top elected official in Northern Ireland, said Thursday that concerns about offending hardliners who threaten violence has unfairly led to a ban against Protestants marching in the evening down Crumlin Road, the divide between Catholic and Protestant sections of the Ardoyne neighborhood in northern Belfast.

The semi-independent Parades Commission, whose members manage the controversial marches, is permitting the parade in the morning, when violence is unlikely. Members of the commission, which was created in 1998, are appointed by the British government's Northern Ireland secretary in London.

Robinson is now calling for a legal inquiry into the commission's decision. He suggested the panel's reluctance to give the night parade the green light was putting strain on the province's coalition government of Catholic and Protestant political parties, as well as other institutions created by the 1998 agreement. Last week, after the commission made its ruling, unionists walked out of ongoing peace talks established to address issues left unresolved in the 1998 agreement

"We signed up on the basis of there being respect and tolerance for the cultural expression of all of the traditions in Northern Ireland," Robinson said at a news conference that included leaders of the Orange Order, a Protestant sectarian group often accused of stoking tensions in the province. "I would be failing in my duties if I wasn't to stand beside these men at this time."

The unionists claim the commission's decision appeases nationalist threats of violence and sets a precedent that endangers parades and other unionist cultural events in other neighborhoods shared by Catholics and Protestants.

"This isn't about one single parade at all," said Billy Hutchinson, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant paramilitary group. "It is about human rights, our religious liberties."

Hutchinson said that politics play a role in Catholic attitudes to the parades. Sinn Fein, a major Catholic political party that supports unification with Ireland, objects to the evening parade in order not to stoke tensions that could play into the hands of radical nationalists who oppose the peace process.

"This is them trying to win the hearts and minds of people in Ardoyne," Hutchinson said. "It is a fight against dissidents; they are the only people that threaten violence."

Some of the most gruesome killings of the Troubles occurred on Crumlin Road. Last year, dissident nationalists were suspected of throwing pipe bombs and shooting at police in the neighborhood. The attacks did not occur during Marching Season.

Sinn Fein lawmaker Gerry Kelly, a former Irish Republican Army member, disputed Hutchinson's claims. Catholics are not trying to squelch British culture in Northern Ireland, he said.

"For people talking about the institutions or anything else being in danger over a small section of a parade, I think, is erroneous and actually quite foolish," he said. "The difficulty has always been the evening parade. There has been violence there not just last year or the year before but indeed over 15 years."

The morning march of the Crumlin Road parade is one of more than 500 demonstrations slated for Saturday - referred to as "The Twelfth" - to commemorate Protestant Prince William of Orange's 1690 victory in Ireland over Catholic English King James II. The parades feature flute bands and Orange Order members wearing their signature orange sashes and other regalia.

Last year, when the commission also banned marching down Crumlin Road in the evening, unionists staged riots that resulted in 32 injured police officers. Unionists then held a year-long sit-in to draw attention to their demand to let the night parade occur.

Orange Order Chaplain Mervyn Gibson said marchers have little choice but to use Crumlin Road in order to reach their lodge in a Protestant section of the neighborhood in the evening.

Gibson and his colleagues have been in talks with Catholic residents in Ardoyne about how the two sides might allow the parades to continue without violence, but the Catholics remain opposed to a night march They have offered to accommodate the morning leg of the parade.

"It is a space shared by the people living there," Gibson said. "If it is a shared space, it has to be shared."



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Catholic-Protestant feud flares anew in Northern Ireland

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