BELFAST, Northern Ireland — British Prime Minister Tony Blair and senior Protestant leaders appealed to hard-line marchers to avoid violence Sunday when police and soldiers block them from marching through a Catholic neighborhood.
Security forces readied extensive defenses Saturday on the eve of the Orange Order march in Portadown that has inspired a week of street clashes in Northern Ireland.
"I hope this year's parade will pass off smoothly and lawfully, and appeal to you and all your colleagues to do everything possible to avoid tension and violence," Blair wrote to Portadown's Orange chiefs in a letter made public late Saturday.
Three schools — two Catholic, the other an integrated institution where Catholic and Protestant children studied together — were damaged early Saturday by arsonists in predominantly Protestant towns north of Belfast.
And Protestant militants resumed rioting in the area at night, hijacking and burning at least four cars and tossing homemade gasoline and nail bombs at police armored personnel carriers. Police said they arrested four suspected rioters and seized crates containing about 170 gasoline bombs.
Earlier, the province's most senior Protestant church and political leaders appealed to the Orange Order, the province's once-dominant Protestant fraternal group, to back down.
"I do not consider violent protest is in any way appropriate before or after attendance at the worship of Almighty God," said Archbishop Robin Eames, leader of the Anglican church in Ireland.
A rural Anglican church in Drumcree, north of the predominantly Protestant town, is the midway point for the Orangemen's annual parade — officially to commemorate local losses in World War I, but in practice a demonstration of Protestant dominance that many Catholics resent.
Since 1995 Catholic hard-liners in the Garvaghy Road district have tried to block the parade as it returns to Portadown through their area.
The Orangemen, protesting that they are being coerced by supporters of the Irish Republican Army, have refused to go home through Protestant areas or to negotiate directly with the Catholics. That position, along with intense Catholic rioting in 1997, has compelled British authorities to bar Orangemen from Garvaghy Road since 1998.
A standoff between Orange crowds and police in 1998 ended only when three young Catholic brothers died in an arson attack in another town. Last year Orangemen and their supporters remained largely peaceful.
But this year, notorious Protestant terrorists recently paroled from prison under terms of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord have been prominent at the Portadown standoff.
To the exasperation of many Protestants, including Orangemen outside Portadown, the town's Orange leaders have welcomed their attendance.
"Evidence of paramilitary involvement at Drumcree and the disgraceful exhibition of masked men firing shots in Portadown has removed further any integrity this protest may have had," Eames said.
In response, Portadown Orangemen said they intended to disperse Sunday after handing police a letter of protest at the barricade.
But they appealed for Orangemen across Northern Ireland to mount four-hour street protests Monday as part of a continuing campaign to force a march down Garvaghy Road — and to disband a government-appointed Parades Commission which sets restrictions on controversial parades.
Breandan MacCionnaith, the former IRA prisoner who leads the Garvaghy Road protesters, predicted "mayhem and possibly murder on the streets ... as a result of the Orange Order's actions."
David Trimble, leader of Northern Ireland's biggest Protestant party who rose to prominence by championing the Portadown Orangemen's right to march in 1995, said the time had come for direct talks between the Portadown factions.
"It would be so much better if the (Portadown Orange) district could represent itself directly rather than go through go-betweens," said Trimble, an Orangeman who today leads Northern Ireland's joint Protestant-Catholic administration — a power-sharing experiment that many Orangemen oppose.
Learning from past struggles to contain Protestant mobs at Drumcree, police and army commanders have assembled an array of defensive measures.
Riot police in flame-retardant uniforms, soldiers in armored personnel carriers, surveillance planes and helicopters with searchlights, and high-powered water cannons on loan from Belgium have been used in recent days to keep angry Orange crowds at bay.
Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, commander of the province's predominantly Protestant police force, said his officers would allow Orangemen to engage indefinitely in peaceful demonstrations.
He said nighttime violence — the hijacking and burning of cars, gasoline-bomb attacks on police, and stone-throwing at isolated Catholic homes — had eased since Thursday.
"I think that is because people in the areas affected are standing up and saying: 'We don't want this'," Flanagan said.
Orange Order, www.orangenet.org
Residents group, www.garvaghyroad.org