One of the largest protest rallies ever held in Northern Ireland broke up in disarray Saturday as elements of a massive Protestant crowd looted stores in the city center and fought running battles with police.
At least 25 people were injured as police equipped with bulletproof vests and riot shields fired plastic bullets into the fringes of the crowd.
Scattered incidents of violence were reported in Protestant neighborhoods elsewhere in the city as bands of youths roamed the streets amid a heavy police presence. A police Land Rover came under automatic weapons fire briefly in a Protestant area of west Belfast, but no injuries were reported.
In earlier clashes between police and Protestant demonstrators late Friday and early Saturday, one youth was killed after being hit by a police vehicle and four police were injured in another confrontation.
Three of the officers suffered burns from acid thrown in their faces.
Police said 69 arrests were made.
Well over 100,000 Protestants had pushed into a square in front of the Belfast City Hall and spilled into surrounding streets Saturday to voice their opposition to a political agreement signed by the Irish and British governments exactly one year ago aimed at bringing stability to the troubled province.
Saturday's crowd was roughly the same size as a Protestant rally held here a few days after the agreement was signed last year.
Several banners were hung in the square. One large sign across most of the Victorian City Hall facade declared, "Belfast Says No." Another said, "No to the Agreement, No to Popery."
Rally organizers said that a quarter of a million people took part, a figure equal to more than 15% of the province's population.
The accord, which provides the Irish Republic a consultative role in the British-ruled province, has been consistently opposed by the majority Protestant population, which views it as the first step toward Ulster's eventual absorption into a united, Catholic Ireland.
4 Centuries of Domination
The agreement is designed to end nearly four centuries of Protestant domination of Ireland's six northern counties, known collectively as Ulster, by giving minority Catholics a share of political power.
More than 2,500 people have died in the most recent cycle of Protestant-Catholic violence now in its 18th year.
Rally organizers and leading Protestant politicians who addressed the crowd had pleaded for a peaceful protest, but violence began almost immediately.
As the crowd sang the words to the 21st Psalm at the rally's outset, hooded youths near the edges of the gathering, believed to be part of a Protestant paramilitary group, began hurling rocks at downtown store windows.
Plastic Bullets, Golf Balls
By the time the Rev. Ian Paisley, a leading Protestant hard-liner, rose to speak half an hour later, police had fired several plastic bullets into the crowd. One of the injured was carried to safety under the podium.
At one point, police were showered by a barrage of golf balls from rioters who had looted a sports shop conveniently near the rally area.
As the looting began to spread to a large department store about 50 yards from the speakers' platform, Paisley ended his speech abruptly, and Belfast Mayor Sammy Wilson appealed in vain for the looting to stop.
For more than an hour after the rally broke up, leaders of the Protestant Establishment, some dressed in traditional bowler hats and orange sashes and at least one in the ceremonial red robe of an elected city councilor, tried to halt the looting by forming lines in front of the stores.
Waves Umbrella at Looters
Ken McGuinnes, one of Ulster's 17 members of the British Parliament, tried to chase looters off by waving his umbrella in the air.
Paisley later dismissed the violence as "very slight trouble that means nothing."
"This is small compared to what will happen if this agreement is not scrapped," he said. "The street is the only place left, alas, where the people of Ulster can say 'No.' "
The size and composition of the gathering, which appeared to include a broad cross section of Ulster Protestant society, reflected the deep-seated feeling against the Anglo-Irish agreement that remains among Protestants here after a year of bitter, sometimes violent, protests.
However, the violence is also an indicator that control of events has begun to slip away from the traditional leadership.
Those leaders had asked paramilitary groups not to appear in uniform or to incite violence at the rally, but both requests apparently were ignored.
No Clear Direction
The absence of any clear direction from the community's political leaders coupled with the outbreak of violence seemed to highlight the Protestant dilemma here.
The majority reject violence as a legitimate tactic, yet no one has so far been able to offer an effective alternative.
How extensive a campaign of violence Protestant paramilitary groups can mount is unclear, but those familiar with them maintain that they are neither as disciplined nor as powerful as the outlawed Irish Republican Army, which draws its support here from hard-line Catholic areas.
Both British and Irish government officials have repeatedly stated that they plan to continue their support for the terms of the agreement, despite continued Protestant opposition.
Washington has backed the accord with $50 million to support programs aimed at reducing violence.
Although the leader of Ulster's largest Protestant-based party, James Molyneaux, promised to mobilize what he termed "a comprehensive campaign of civil disobedience" against the accord, he provided few details of possible action.
"Dissent without disobedience is consent," he said.
He called on Protestants to resign their seats from local health and education boards and to withhold payment of an annual tax on television sets used to help finance the British Broadcasting Corp., but neither step is likely to have much impact.
The British government suspended most powers of Northern Ireland's regional assembly 14 years ago, ruling the province directly from London since then. British officials have indicated that they would step in to operate local government boards in Ulster too if needed.
Most of the rally's speakers tried to boost flagging Protestant morale.
"One year on, we're not singing 'Happy Birthday'; we're here at its funeral service," Mayor Wilson told the cheering crowd.
But aside from rhetoric, there was little indication that Saturday's action had any influence on either the Irish or British governments.
"They had a big turnout, but I don't think they proved anything we didn't already know--that the (Protestants) don't like the accord," said Nicholas Scott, Britain's minister of state for Northern Ireland.
"But it has also proved they can't control the hooligan element, and this will have done them no good outside the province," he added.