Police in Belfast were on high alert Saturday as tens of thousands of Unionists gathered for a march to mark the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant, a bill which laid the foundations for the partition of Ireland.
Northern Ireland braced for one of its biggest Unionists parades in years on Saturday, with police on high alert as the marchers took to the streets of Belfast.
Some 30,000 people were expected to join the march marking the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant, a landmark declaration signed by nearly half a million Unionists who vowed to defend themselves against rule from Dublin.
The covenant laid the foundations for the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland as a British province in 1921.
Amid fears that the huge anniversary march could lead to clashes with Belfast's republican and largely Catholic minority, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has mounted its biggest operation in 20 years, the BBC reported.
"The PSNI will be working hard to ensure that the Ulster Covenant parade takes place peacefully," said the force's Chief Constable Matt Baggott.
"I know that this is the wish of the vast majority across all communities."
The six-mile march set off from central Belfast just after 10:00 am (0900 GMT) and headed towards the east of the city, where a cultural festival was being held in the grounds of Northern Ireland's parliament at Stormont.
The early stage of the march passed off peacefully, an AFP photographer at the scene reported.
For Unionists (who are generally Protestants), the marches -- in which participants wave banners and bands play traditional music -- are an important expression of Northern Ireland's continued union with Britain, but nationalists see them as intimidating.
Belfast was hit by three nights of rioting earlier this month, with more than 60 police officers injured, after Unionists attempted to disrupt a march by republicans.
Around 3,500 people have died in the three decades of sectarian violence between Northern Ireland's republican and unionist communities that largely ended with a 1998 peace agreement, though sporadic unrest and bomb threats continue.
(FRANCE24 with wires)
Date created : 2012-09-29