Bricks, snooker balls: Police clash with rioters in Belfast (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Police in Belfast fired water cannon at Catholic youths, after rioting erupted following a Protestant march. Teens threw bricks and snooker balls at officers, while several protesters hijacked and burned nearby cars.

­Demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails at police, who responded by firing plastic bullets. Nine officers were wounded and two rioters were arrested during the clashes.

The riot was sparked by a parade which takes place every year on July 12. Hosted by the Orange Order Brotherhood – a group of pro-British Protestants – the march is to commemorate a 17th-century military victory over Catholic forces.

However, the parade is seen as a display of Protestant superiority by Irish nationalists who want to be part of a united Ireland.

Police tried to avoid the inevitable violence between the two religious groups by giving participants a timetable and specified route. However, the efforts proved futile when the march passed through a Catholic district of the city.

(AFP Photo / Peter Muhly)
(AFP Photo / Peter Muhly)

­The trouble began after 15 members of the Orange Order walked in silence past a row of shops in a largely nationalist area. A small group of Catholic residents stood on either side of the road holding banners which said, “Residents’ rights are being trampled”.

Soon, the number of angry Catholics on the street swelled to more than 1,000 people.

In a bid to defuse tensions, police allowed Catholic residents to stage their own march – even though it would pass dangerously close to the crowd of Protestants.

It quickly turned into a standoff between the two groups, with both sides trading verbal abuse with one another.

Catholics tossed bottles and stones at Protestants, who then retaliated. Golf balls and planks of wood were used as makeshift weapons, and thrown over the heads of riot police. Officers then saturated the area, preventing the two sides from getting close to each other.

(AFP Photo / Peter Muhly)
(AFP Photo / Peter Muhly)

­This only further angered nationalists, who decided to confront police. The Catholics provoked officers on the street and smashed their way into a parked BMW.

Northern Ireland’s sectarian issues are unarguably complex, but not everyone believes Irish Catholics are the cause of the problem.

Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party, said the problem was the Orangemens’ refusal to negotiate directly with anti-Orange groups from Catholic neighborhoods.

“The Orange (Order) should have their day, but the people in the host community have a right to be talked to,” Adams told AP.

(AFP Photo / Peter Muhly)
(AFP Photo / Peter Muhly)

­Critics say the annual march seems pointless, since Northern Ireland’s government is led mostly by Orangemen and Sinn Fein, who talk and work together, despite serious differences of opinion.

Belfast has been plagued by three decades of violence between Protestant loyalists who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom and Irish nationalists – mainly Catholics – who want it to be part of a united Ireland.

A 1998 peace agreement led to a power-sharing government of both loyalists and nationalists. Although violence has subsided, police say the threat from groups opposed to the deal is now higher than at any time since it was signed.