Assembly sits for special session as tensions over flag restrictions continue to rage
After a weekend of loyalist protest and violence and more protests to come, the Stormont Assembly is to hold a special session this morning to discuss the ongoing tensions.
At 10.30am, the Assembly is due to debate a motion, brought by the Alliance Party, that condemns the riots, reaffirms the commitment of all members to the rule of law, and insists that any further protests be peaceful and orderly.
Last week, Alliance Party leader David Ford, who is also Northern Ireland’s Minister for Justice, requested an immediate recall of the Assembly, after an attack on two councillors in Bangor, Co Down, and the burning of an Alliance Party office in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim.
However, it is understood that the special debate was scheduled for today in order to avoid the potential for inflaming tensions over the weekend. More loyalist protests are planned in the coming days.
On Saturday, up to 2,000 loyalists held a protest in the centre of Belfast, outside City Hall, to demonstrate their opposition to the removal of the Union flag from the building. It will now only fly on designated days. There was a heavy police presence as protesters converged on the city centre.
Prior to the protest on Saturday, PSNI assistant chief constable Will Kerr urged loyalists to reconsider. He said: “This is not the time, the place, the day, or the area to be involved in that protest. This is a time for calm heads and reflection as we approach Christmas.”
The continental Christmas market was temporarily closed during the protest, and some traders in the city centre complained that their businesses were affected on what is normally one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
Although the protest was largely peaceful, a Tricolour was torched. Later, there was trouble on the Newtownards Road, in the east of the city. Bricks and other missiles were thrown at police officers, a car was set on fire, and there was an attempt to hijack a bus.
The police said that paramilitaries organised some of the violence. Mr Kerr said: “This is the obvious consequence of bringing people out on to the streets at a time of heightened tension.
“Those involved in the protest should reflect on their own responsibility for any associated disorder and violence.”
A 15-year-old boy has been charged with riot and criminal damage over the trouble in east Belfast. He will appear before the city’s youth court today.
Loyalists opposed to the new restrictions have been holding protests since last Monday, when the city council voted to fly the flag only on designated days, following a compromise motion from the Alliance Party.
There were attacks on the homes of offices of Alliance councillors, and a death threat against the Alliance MP for East Belfast, Naomi Long.
She said: “We need mature political leadership from those who, over this week, have been whipping up tensions, stirring up dissension and pointing fingers of blame at people on these issues. That is not without consequence. People need to stand up now and say that violence is wrong and they need to defuse this situation and allow Northern Ireland to go forward as it should.”
In the latest incident, early on Saturday morning, the home of an Alliance councillor, Linda Cleland, was attacked in Newtownards, Co Down. Yesterday, a protest in Belfast closed the bottom of the Shankill Road.