Attempts by the Dublin and London government to rebrand sectarian marches and ghoulish bonfires as “cultural events” failed before they began last weekend when loyalists embarked on violent rampages on the eve of the ‘Twelfth’, the height of the marching season.
The most serious ‘Elewventh Night’ trouble was in Belfast. After setting fire to their bonfire, a mob of more than a hundred loyalists swarmed across the Westlink bridge into west Belfast.
Arming themselves with bricks and iron bars taken from a construction site, the drunken mob made its way towards nationalist homes. However, they were spotted crossing the bridge and their path was blocked by around 20 locals. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting erupted, and four locals were badly injured.
One man, twenty-year-old Stuart Rush, was almost killed when he was smashed on the head with a serrated iron bar, knocked unconscious and kicked about the face.
“I’m lucky to be alive. The loyalists who attacked me tried to kill me,” said Mr Rush, who was unconscious for more than an hour. Nine stitches hold together a gaping wound on his forehead caused by an iron bar.
He faces an anxious wait to learn if he has any permanent eye damage.
“The doctors can’t tell what damage has been done to his eyes until the swelling goes down,” said Stuart’s mother, Deirdre.
“What makes me angry is how there were no police patrols on the Broadway roundabout.
“There has been trouble there for weeks, it didn’t take a genius to know there would be more on the Eleventh Night.”
One local man, who saw the crowd coming, spoke of how people ran from their homes in Iveagh and the Falls to stop the mob.
“The loyalists backed off as more people ran down to help. Just after this the cops arrived on the scene,” he said.
“It was frightening, if they had got up as far as Iveagh Crescent houses would have been wrecked.
“Fair play to the lads who ran down and got stuck into them first, they saved this area.”
There were similar clashes in north Belfast and Portadown.
Elsewhere, a number of bonfires across the North openly displayed banners calling for the murder of Catholics. Incredibly, some of these had received funding to the tune of three thousand pounds from unionist-controlled councils as “public entertainment”.
The next day, a British government media campaign, supported by DUP leader Peter Robinson, sought to pass off triumphalist marches by the exclusively Protestant Orange Order as tourist attractions.
The marchers, accompanied by military-style flute and drum bands, celebrate the victory of the Protestant King William over the Catholic King James in 1690. Some Orangemen carry swords and wear ‘William of Orange’ sashes, while others don bowler hats and carry umbrellas to reflect loyalty to London.
But at one such event, a former Orange Order “Grand Master” Reverend Stephen Dickinson rejected cultural connotations.
Speaking at the Ballyclare demonstration, Dickinson denounced power-sharing with nationalists and said the ‘Twelfth’ was “about Protestantism and about Britishness”, adding “it’s not about cultural tourism, Mr Robinson”.
The current leader of the Orange Order, ‘Grand Master’ Robert Saulters, said he was sickened to see Sinn Féin in government, calling them “commanders of the enemy”.
Meanwhile, across the North, nationalist residents and business owners who shut up shop and went away for the weekend returned to find a mess of broken bottles, smouldering embers and vomit. Some of those who stayed saw more trouble, however.
Rival loyalists clashed at Bradbury Place in the heart of touristic south Belfast.
But the most serious violence took place on Saturday evening when CS gas was used by the PSNI police when fighting broke out between nationalists and loyalists bandsmen in the County Antrim village of Rasharkin.
Later, Orangemen were prevented from making their way through the village for a short time because of a hoax bomb alert.
Tensions had been running high in the overwhelmingly nationalist village after a firebomb attack on a Catholic bar.
There were also violent clashes between nationalist protestors and the PSNI in Portadown and Enniskillen.
Meanwhile, in Dublin, 350 guests attended a “Twelfth garden party” hosted by President Mary McAleese at her residence, Aras an Uachtarain.
Praising the efforts to reduce community tensions in the north, Mrs McAleese said: “Ten years on from the Good Friday Agreement and 10 years on from our very first July 12 commemoration at the Aras, our context has changed.
“Williamite and Jacobite work together in government in Northern Ireland.
“Britain and Ireland are friends and colleagues as never before in our history and Ireland, north and south, has moved beyond mistrust, to a growing neighbourliness that augurs well for the future.”