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Northern Irish Protestants march peacefully

As many as 30,000 pro-British marchers took to the streets of Northern Ireland on Saturday to mark the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant. Fears of violence led to the biggest police security operation in years.

The Covenant, signed by more than half a million Protestants in 1912, rejected rule from Dublin and pledged allegiance to Britain, laying the groundwork for the division of Ireland in 1921.

The anniversary of the Ulster Covenant is considered by local Protestants to be one of their most significant.

Large police deployment

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said Saturday's deployment was its biggest in over 20 years based on fears that the huge gathering could lead to clashes with Belfast's Catholic minority.

Most parades in Northern Ireland pass off each year without incident, but fears rise when marchers cross or pass close to rival communities.

Eight Protestant Unionist organizations - including members of the Orange Order - marched through Belfast on Saturday, passing a Catholic church where violence has recently flared.

A peaceful day

Marchers set off from Belfast's City Hall, where the Ulster Covenant was signed, and marched 10 kilometers (six miles) to Stormont, the home of the country's power-sharing government.

Bands supplied traditional Irish music, enabling participants to march to familiar tunes as they waved their banners. Protestants see this as an important expression of Northern Ireland's ongoing union with Britain, but the Catholic minority sees such public displays as intimidating.

Three nights of rioting earlier this month left more than 60 police personnel injured, after Protestants tried to interrupt a march by Catholic republicans.

Until the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, sectarian violence between the country's Catholic and Protestant religious groups claimed more than 3,500 lives. Although the pact largely ended the violence, intermittent fighting and bomb threats still continue.

On Saturday, however, the parade and celebrations concluded without incident.

jlw,tm/slk (AFP, Reuters)

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