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Irish faction calls for calm as Blair backs parade ban

SHARE Irish faction calls for calm as Blair backs parade ban

Leaders of Northern Ireland's Orange Order appealed Thursday for calm after Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to reverse a ban that prevents their Protestant parade from going through a Catholic neighborhood.

Hours earlier, police blocking the Protestant marchers at a rural church field fired plastic bullets to repel protesters who briefly broke through a security line. No injuries were reported.The violence began Sunday when police and British troops, enforcing a decision by Northern Ireland's Parades Commission, barred the Orangemen from marching on the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, where Catholic residents say the Protestant marchers are not welcome.

The Garvaghy Road march has sparked violent clashes the past three summers.

"We are greatly concerned about the situation in our province," said the Rev. William Bingham, a member of a four-man Orange Order delegation who met Blair in the prime minister's Downing Street office in London.

A spokesman for Blair said the meeting was friendly but acknowledged the situation was very difficult. "(Blair) is not in a position to reverse the decision of the Parades Commission," the spokesman said, speaking on customary anonymity.

Neither side budged, but Bingham said channels of communication will remain open over the next few days.

Orange Order leaders, upset at clashes between protesters and the mainly Protestant police force, appealed for calm and accused unidentified groups of orchestrating violence to undermine their position.

Northern Ireland endured a fourth night of violence Wednesday with police coming under gunfire and bomb attacks at a Protestant housing area in Newtownabbey, 5 miles north of Belfast. No injuries were reported, and police arrested one man.