The most bitter parade of Northern Ireland's marching season has ended peacefully, with loyalist Protestants turning away from a potential confrontation with Catholic nationalists.

Two thousand British police and troops had been positioned along the route Sunday to discourage clashes as hundreds of Protestants -- with their traditional bowler hats and orange sashes -- made their annual walk to the Drumcree Anglican Church in the rural town of Portadown.

For the sixth consecutive year, soldiers erected a steel barrier and barbed-wire fences to prevent the Orangemen from using their traditional route through a staunchly Catholic neighborhood. They approached the barrier but did not try to push through it as they did last year. Instead, they handed police a letter of protest and went home.

The Orange Order organizes hundreds of marches during Northern Ireland's summer to commemorate the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over the deposed Catholic monarch James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The Drumcree march has come to symbolize a wider dispute between Catholics, who mostly favor reunification with the Republic of Ireland, and Protestants who want to maintain British rule.

The marching season takes on extra significance this year. In the next several months politicians on both sides will try to revive their power-sharing government. London reimposed direct rule last October.