It was like a rerun of the bad old days in Northern Ireland: Protestant militants attacked and wounded 56 police officers protecting a parade by Irish Republican Army supporters in Belfast last night. The outbreak of violence could be the first in a tense weekend involving parades by both the Irish Catholic and British Protestant extremes of society. Police said Protestant extremists encouraged by social-media messages rallied to block the parade on Royal Avenue, Belfast's major shopping boulevard. Some wore British flags as capes or masks, and tore up scaffolding and pavement stones to attack police girded in full riot gear. Police responded with water cannons and plastic bullets. No word on protester casualties, but several could be seen staggering away from the confrontation zone with bloodied faces.
This year's unusually protracted street trouble reflects rising working-class Protestant anger at Irish Catholic gains from the peace process. The US-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998 sought to end IRA and other paramilitary violence, spur police reform and British military withdrawals, and forge a joint Catholic-Protestant government. Those goals have largely been achieved, but the supposed "unity" government continues to reflect fundamental divisions in Northern Ireland society. As the Irish role in government and policing has risen, Protestant opposition to that changing face of authority has grown. (Read more Northern Ireland stories.)