BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland’s first and deputy first ministers held crisis talks with politicians and leaders of the pro-British Orange Order on Wednesday in a bid to stop the sectarian violence which has engulfed Belfast over the last three days.
Sixty-five police officers have been injured defending themselves from petrol bombs, fireworks, stones and bottles since riots first erupted on Sunday after a Catholic nationalist band marched in an area where Protestant groups were recently barred from doing so.
The Assistant Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland warned on Tuesday that someone will be killed if a resolution to the parades impasse is not found quickly.
“People need to abide by the rule of law,” Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness told reporters after the talks.
“If people are not prepared to abide by those determinations then what they are effectively doing is sowing the seeds of further conflict within our society and I think they are making a big mistake.”
First Minister Peter Robinson, whose protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) shares power with McGuinness’s nationalist Sinn Fein, urged the communities to take a step back and respect the rights of people to parade.
Most parades across the province pass peacefully each year but violence often breaks out when marchers cross or pass close to rival communities, particularly during the divisive summer marching season.
Seven police officers were hurt in the same area of North Belfast in late August when a Protestant band marched past a Catholic church playing music in defiance of a ban from the parades commission, which regulates marches in the province.
Wednesday’s talks were bolstered by the surprise arrival of top officials from the Orange Order at government buildings, though they stuck by their refusal to talk directly to McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander.
Thousands of Orangemen will march through Belfast later this month to mark the centenary of the signing by half a million Unionists of a pact opposing the introduction of devolved government in Ireland.
Paramilitary violence between the province’s mainly Catholic nationalists and pro-British Protestants, which raged for three decades, was largely ended by a 1998 peace agreement, but much of Belfast remains divided along sectarian lines.
Editing by Padraic Halpin and Michael Roddy