The PSNI attacked a peaceful protest in the republican Ardoyne area of north Belfast to facilitate a sectarian march, triggering hours of rioting on Tuesday evening.
Trouble had been widely expected after the government-mandated Parades Commission gave the go ahead for the controversial parade, which led to three days of rioting last year.
The coat-trailing parade, which passes through a number of nationalist areas, was one of hundreds held on Tuesday by the Orange Order to celebrate the anniversary of the Protestant war victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
Nationalists of all shades have long called on the Orangemen to stop using the contentious route in the absence of an accommodation with local residents.
The PSNI laid siege to the Ardoyne from early in the day in order to prevent nationalists from blocking the Crumlin Road, resulting in a violent confrontation with some residents.
A spokesperson for the Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective (GARC) said local residents had been attacked as they gathered in nearby Estorial Park to take part in a counter-demonstration.
“Just prior to leaving on their planned route, scores of riot-clad RUC/PSNI men, ten armoured Land Rovers and a water cannon stormed into the top of Estorial Park where they immediately attacked a number of local people waiting on the GARC demonstration,” he said.
Later on, standing on top of a wall and speaking through a megaphone, GARC spokesman Dee Fennell told a crowd of about 300 people of all ages they would no longer tolerate being treated as second class citizens.
Mr Fennell, whose grandmother was shot in Ardoyne 40 years ago, urged the residents to defy the attempt to outlaw their protest.
“We will let the Orange Order, PSNI and Parades Commission know exactly what we think of their parade,” he said to cheers, while appealing for an exclusively peaceful protest.
The Sinn Fein-backed Crumlin Ardoyne Residents Association (CARA) also held a peaceful protest inside the grounds of Holy Cross church to coincide with the parade.
However, after the parade was forced through, local youths threw stones, bricks and other missiles, while the PSNI responded with water cannon. Roof slates were broken up and hurled along with other masonry, and later household furniture and other items were thrown at the PSNI, who responded with waves of plastic bullet fire. As the fighting intensified, one PSNI man, described as a weapons specialist, was struck by a petrol bomb.
Disturbances later spread across Belfast and to nationalist areas of Derry, Newry, Armagh and Ballymena in varying intensity.
In the early hours of the morning, PSNI snatch squads moved in, arresting 26 youths -- including children as young as 12 and 14 years old, in Belfast and Derry respectively.
Holy Cross parish priest Fr Gary Donegan, who was present on the ground in Ardoyne, accused the PSNI of being heavy-handed, pointing to their use of siege tactics and the inflammatory use of water cannon and riot squads.
“Even from a moderate perspective there is a lot of criticism of how this has been handled,” he said.
Residents living at Estoril Park were angry at their treatment and slammed the PSNI.
“I wonder are the police going to apologise to us tomorrow?” asked one woman, referring to the extraordinary apology issued by the PSNI to loyalist rioters in Ballyclare last week.
Mark Thompson, director of Relatives for Justice, warned that plastic bullets “do not protect vulnerable citizens and do not contribute to the resolving of the situations”.
“Over the course of the past three years they have emerged once again as the PSNI’s weapon of first resort,” he said.
Despite the warnings, there has been still little sign of any political effort to resolve the annual standoff in Ardoyne, which threatens to reach the dimensions of the infamous Drumcree/Garvaghy Road conflagrations of the late 1990s.
Orangemen have shunned such direct talks for decades, as they still do in Portadown. Unlike in Portadown, however, the Parades Commission has backed the Orangemen, despite their refusal to talk.
The unionist MP for North Belfast Nigel Dodds insisted the road through Ardoyne was a “shared space and not just a nationalist road”.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly said “people have made great efforts, but a parade coming through a Catholic area is a problem.” He said that the GARC group had to bear some responsibility for attempting to protest on the Crumlin Road.
“GARC knew applying for this protest was a recipe for disaster.
“I did not witness the incident with the water cannon but I have been told by residents that it appeared premature and this is something I will be raising with the Policing Board at a later date.”
In a statement, the GARC said responsibility for the riot and violence in Ardoyne “lies fairly and squarely with the Orange Order, UVF and UDA for their insistance to parade where they are unwelcome.
“It also is at the door of the Parades Commission who permit/allow these sectarian marches take place and with the unreformed RUC who not only provoke an already tense situation but also force our community to endure bigots and their triumpalism.”
The group urged talks with loyalists to explore the possibility of a resolution.
“GARC have consistently expressed that your community have legitimate rights, we ask that the rights of local residents are equally respected,” the group said.
Ardoyne was quiet tonight [Wednesday night] following widespread appeals for calm. Elsewhere in Belfast, there were reports of disturbances at Blacks Road in southwest Belfast, and also in Gobnascale in Derry.