BELFAST, Northern Ireland— Hundreds of police reinforcements from Britain were deployed on Belfast’s rubble-strewn streets Saturday after Protestant riots over a blocked Orange Order march left 32 officers, a senior lawmaker and at least eight rioters wounded.
Northern Ireland’s police commander, Chief Constable Matt Baggott, blamed leaders of the Orange Order brotherhood for inciting six hours of running street battles in two parts of Belfast that subsided early Saturday. He derided their leadership as reckless and said they had no plan for controlling crowds they had summoned.
The anti-Catholic fraternity’s annual July 12 marches always raise tensions with the Irish Catholic minority. Over each of the previous four years, Irish republican militants in Ardoyne have attacked police after an Orange parade passed by that Catholic district in north Belfast, the most bitterly divided part of the capital.
This year British authorities ordered Orangemen to avoid the stretch of road nearest Ardoyne, an order that police enforced by blocking their parade route with seven armored vehicles. Orange leaders took that as a challenge and rallied thousands of supporters to the spot, where some attacked the vehicles and the lines of heavily armored officers behind them.
Baggott said the Orange leaders’ decisions were reckless and designed to duck responsibility for the mayhem.
“Having called thousands of people to protest, they had no plan and no control,” said Baggott, an Englishman who has commanded the Police Service of Northern Ireland since 2009.
Orange leaders insisted the blockade was the problem, not the alcohol-fueled fury of their own members. But they backed off their original threat to mount indefinite street protests across Northern Ireland and ordered a suspension of protests early Saturday. The order’s leaders declined requests for interviews Saturday.
That climb-down came too late for north Belfast’s Protestant member of British Parliament, Nigel Dodds, who still clad in his own Orange regalia had gone to the riot to appeal for calm — and ended up getting knocked unconscious by a brick that fell short of police lines. He was released from hospital Saturday.
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service said it ferried eight wounded civilians from the riots. But other rioters nursed their wounds away from hospitals, since being admitted for riot-related injuries helps police to identify and arrest rioters.
Britain’s Cabinet minister for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, said it was “vitally important for the Orange Order to make clear now that their protests have come to an end. It would be disastrous if we were to see a recurrence of last night’s violence over the next few days.”
On Saturday, Baggott received 400 more officers from England, Scotland and Wales to boost his force’s overall strength on the streets above 5,000, including more than 600 officers already imported from Britain.