Every year, Northern Ireland’s Protestants march through the streets of that province to honor the Protestant victories over Catholics in centuries past. It is intended to be a commemoration, but it has also become an angry ritual that rubs raw the emotions of all involved. Opponents of the Good Friday peace accord have turned this year’s marches into the most violent in recent history. It is time to reign in the malcontents, end the provocations and eliminate this threat to the peace process.

This week there were 61 public-disorder incidents in Belfast in one 24-hour period — more than in all of last year. British troops, which had been drawn down since the accord was signed, have been sent back to the province and deployed on the streets for the first time in two years. Local police used water cannons for the first time since the early 1970s.

The chief provocateurs are members of the Orange Order, Northern Ireland’s major Protestant fraternal group, which has more than 50,000 members. Their march down Garvaghy Road into Portadown, a Roman Catholic enclave, is the high point of the marching season and the most incendiary of all the parades. The authorities imposed a ban on the Portadown march, which triggered the violence.

Top officials of the Orange Order have disavowed the violence, as have leaders of the Ulster Unionists, the largest Protestant party. The troublemakers are extremists opposed to ceding any authority to the Catholics. They believe their right to march through the Catholic areas of the city, incendiary as it may be, is nonetheless an important symbol.

Perhaps, but the elevation of such symbols over the reality of Northern Ireland is a mistake. The bitter divisions of history deprived the people of Northern Ireland of a future. They chose to reject that past in 1998, when they rallied in support of the Good Friday peace accord. They have shown no willingness to abandon that path. Their leaders should be so steady.

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