BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) – Catholics demanded sterner restrictions on the Orange Order, the Protestant brotherhood at the center of rioting this week in Belfast, after the group’s leaders rejected any responsibility Wednesday for the street chaos.

Leaders of the 50,000-strong fraternal group – once central to political life in Northern Ireland but increasingly on the defensive – staged their first news conference since Protestant rioting exploded across Belfast and several towns Saturday over a restricted Orange parade.

As the mayhem subsided Wednesday, the Police Service of Northern Ireland catalogued the statistical toll from four nights of rioting: 115 bullets fired at police positions, 146 homemade grenades hurled, 116 vehicles hijacked and burned, and 81 police officers wounded.

The riots were the most widespread waged by the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland in nearly a decade.

Police say members of two major outlawed groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association, were behind the gun and grenade attacks. Both anti-Catholic gangs are supposed to be observing a 1994 truce in support of Northern Ireland’s peace accord.

But the governor, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, on Wednesday ruled that Britain no longer recognized the existence of the Ulster Volunteer Force’s half of the truce.

Hain conceded the move – which was also tied the group’s killing of four Protestants this summer in a criminal feud – was largely symbolic. But he emphasized that Britain was going to take an increasingly tough line on any group, Protestant or Catholic, that didn’t renounce violence.

The Orange Order’s grandmaster, Robert Saulters, and its senior Belfast official Dawson Bailie repeatedly maintained Wednesday that Orangemen did not attack police, an obvious falsehood to independent media witnesses.

Saulters instead blamed the police, British government and the joint Catholic-Protestant panel that imposed the parade restrictions for the violence.

When asked if Orangemen were involved, Saulters said, “Not in violence. They may have protected themselves. But there certainly wasn’t violence. If a policeman comes at you with a baton, you’re going to put up your arm, or something, to stop it, aren’t you?”

Bailie, who had appealed for Protestants to mount illegal road blockades Saturday all over the capital, was even more vociferous in rejecting criticism. Asked if he would like to have handled anything differently, he said: “Not one thing.”

Catholics and some moderate Protestants condemned the Orange leadership and called for British authorities to ban future Protestant parades unless their organizers took responsibility up front for any subsequent Protestant street violence.

“The Orange Order has thrown away the last shred of the respectability it once held so dear. Its new message is simple but chilling: Let us have our way or we will burn the city,” said Alasdair McDonnell, deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which represents moderate Catholic opinion.

“Serious consideration must be given to the banning of any parade or protest where the organizers will not accept that, by bringing people out on to the streets, they are fully responsible for the consequences,” McDonnell said.

Martin McGuinness, a veteran Irish Republican Army commander who is deputy leader of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party, called the Orange leaders “an embarrassment to all of us” and compared their news conference to “watching the Marx Brothers. They need to get real; they need to wise up.”

Hain also expressed astonishment and cited plentiful police surveillance-camera footage and photographs showing Orangemen, many still in their suits and orange vestments, hurling bricks and scuffling with police at dozens of illegal road blockades.

“Orangemen could be clearly seen taking off their collarettes and literally picking up rocks and throwing them with ferocity at police in the front line,” Hain said. “Maybe it was a minority of Orange Order members – I’m sure it was – but the Orange Order organized that parade which sparked off this vicious, ferocious and lethal violence against police officers. They must take responsibility for that.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.