Fresh rioting erupts in east Belfast
Fresh rioting including use of petrol bombs erupted in Northern Ireland tonight after senior police and politicians united to demand an end to the violent protests which have blighted Northern Ireland over the past six weeks.
In a hard-hitting statement to the Northern Ireland Assembly today, First Minister Peter Robinson had branded rioters the enemies of democracy and claimed they were being exploited by elements seeking to wreck the peace process.
“You do not respect a Union flag if you are using it as a weapon to charge against someone,” Mr Robinson said. “You are not showing respect for the Union flag if you need to wear a mask when carrying it.
“For many the issue of the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Council is now a cynical cover for the real political agenda which is to destroy the political process.”
However, in east Belfast tonight, officers were attacked again in the lower Newtownards Road area after a series of small demonstrations by loyalists in protest against the decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag above City Hall.
A number of roads were blocked for a time. Some motorists held up in long tailbacks complained that police failed to take tougher action to clear masked demonstrators waving flags.
Bus services in the east of the city were also suspended after what Translink described as “two incidents”. Water cannons were called in after mobs attacked officers with stones, bottles and missiles. There were no early reports of injuries.
Loyalists threw petrol bombs at police and also at homes and a Catholic church in the neighbouring Catholic Short Strand area.
Conall McDevitt, an SDLP member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and one of the Belfast councillors who voted for the flag to come down, said the attack on
St Matthews Church and surrounding houses was a shameful act of hate. He also said the continuing attacks on police were “sick”.
Civil unrest has erupted in parts of Northern Ireland since Belfast City councillors voted on December 3rd to restrict the number of days the Union flag would be flown over City Hall.
To date 101 police officers have been injured, one of whom is still in hospital. There have been 112 arrests and 85 people, including a number of children, have been charged with public order offences.
The bill for policing the riots has already exceeded £7 million (€8.4 million).
Northern Ireland’s top police officer Matt Baggott has called for politicians to act quickly to resolve the current crisis.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable revealed his commanders on the ground were revising their tactics, but said sweeping protesters off the streets was not a realistic option.
He said: “Even when the PSNI was 12,000-strong it would not have been possible to take such a rigid approach towards protests. Our approach has always been to be measured and responsible. We have simply to put public safety first.”
On Saturday, 29 police officers were injured when trouble flared between loyalists and nationalists at a sectarian flashpoint in east Belfast. There was also violence in areas of Co Antrim on Friday night.
Mr Baggott added: “When you have over 4,000 people engaged in protest it is simply impossible to have a rigid approach to that. What we are keen to do is to keep hospitals and arterial routes open and are continually revising our tactics.”
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers visited beleaguered business owners in Belfast city centre whose trade has been affected by the protests and associated violence.
During an impromptu visit to the Home pop-up restaurant, she expressed solidarity with the hospitality industry and shopkeepers.
Colin Neil, from the Pubs of Ulster, said some landlords had reported losses of up to £60,000 since the protests started.
He said: “Pubs have been feeling the impact and over the last number of weeks, trade has been down by 30 per cent to 40 per cent, with one publican suffering a 54 per cent drop in
trade last week alone.
“It is clear the situation is now critical. Fears of closures and job losses are fast becoming a reality, with some pubs not expected to make it to the end of January. It is clear that the industry cannot take much more.”
Ms Villiers, who was accompanied by the DUP Lord Mayor of Belfast Gavin Robinson, also repeated calls for the attacks to stop.
With more protests planned for tonight, Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness held an emergency meeting with the chief constable to discuss the policing operation.
He said there should be a robust response against those who flout the law. Mr McGuinness said: “Those people who are breaking the law almost on a nightly basis need to be brought before the courts.”
Mr McGuinness blamed loyalist paramilitaries from the UVF for orchestrating the violence, particularly in east Belfast, and said they were challenging the political institutions.
He added: “I think there needs to be resolute action not just from the police but political leaders.
“I was not found wanting in the aftermath of the terrible murders of four individuals, two police officers and two soldiers. What I have called for is for a united approach.”
Mr McGuinness said he was concerned about issues about the impact on community relations and the ability to attract foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland.
“This has travelled all around the world for a terrible news story. It is so depressing and it needs to be brought to an end.”