Fresh violence breaks out in Belfast as protests continue
Around a thousand loyalist protesters picketed Belfast City Hall tonight over the Union flag row as violent disturbances again broke out elsewhere in the city.
The demonstration at the civic building in the city centre was held as Belfast City Council met for the first time since its controversial decision to limit the flying of the flag on the roof.
While the protest at City Hall passed off without incident, trouble flared again in the east of the city - the fifth night in succession that the area has been blighted by disorder.
Police were attacked by rioters throwing heavy masonry as they tried to separate rival factions at a flashpoint between loyalist and republican areas on the Newtownards Road. Water cannon was deployed in a bid to restore order.
Earlier Northern Ireland Chief Constable Matt Baggott claimed senior members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) were orchestrating the street violence in east Belfast.
Loyalist protests have been continuing across Northern Ireland since early December in response to the decision by Belfast councillors to only fly the flag above City Hall on designated days instead of all year round.
The first of these days is this Wednesday, when the flag will be raised to mark the birthday of the Duchess of Cambridge.
More than 60 police officers have been injured in flag-related unrest in the last five weeks, with around 100 people arrested.
Mr Baggott said while UVF members were involved in the east Belfast rioting there was no evidence that the organisation’s leadership endorsed their actions.
Police also reported some disorder tonight elsewhere in east Belfast, in the Dundonald area.
Last month, Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the cross-community Alliance Party all voted to limit the number of days the flag flies at City Hall, with all unionist members of the council opposing the move.
Since then, elected representatives from all sides and some representing areas beyond Belfast have received death threats. The latest was against SDLP Assembly member for Mid-Ulster Patsy McGlone.
A parcel containing a sympathy card referring to Mr McGlone and a bullet was intercepted at a postal sorting office.
The flag issue was not on the formal agenda of tonight’s Belfast City Council meeting, but councillors did spend an hour debating the matter.
At the outset, DUP lord mayor Gavin Robinson urged members to show moderation in the discussion.
While some angry words were exchanged between councillors on opposing nationalist and unionist benches, the debate was generally even-tempered and well ordered.
Sinn Féin’s Jim McVeigh accused unionist politicians of failed leadership and said they had allowed themselves to be “led by the nose” by a small band of extremists. He said councillors would not be bowed by threats from loyalists.
“We won’t be intimidated by those threats,” he said.
“Their protests are pointless and they will have absolutely no impact on decisions that we take.” He said his party would respect British tradition but told unionists that respect was “not one way”.
But his claims were met with a vociferous response from unionists.
Democratic Unionist councillor for east Belfast Robin Newton accused Mr McVeigh and Sinn Féin of “bulldozing” the flag vote through council. “It was purely a political decision, a pure political decision,” he said, rejecting the claims that unionists had not shown leadership.
But Mr Newton also called on loyalists engaged in the protests to seek a political route to voice their grievances instead.
“All sections of the unionist community should involve themselves in politics in Northern Ireland,” he said.
This morning Mr Baggott accused UVF members of organising the trouble in the east of Belfast.
“Senior members of the UVF in east Belfast as individuals have been increasingly orchestrating some of this violence — that is utterly unacceptable and is being done for their own selfish motives,” he said.
But he added: “I don’t want to put this out of perspective and I don’t want to overplay this — we are talking about east Belfast, we are talking about senior members of the UVF in east Belfast, not with the collective endorsement of the UVF per se, so don’t overplay this.”
The region’s top officer said the policing operation had already cost millions of pounds. He insisted he did have the resources at present to deal with the rioting but warned that if disturbances continued, long-term policing objectives, such as the operation to tackle dissident republicanism, could be undermined.
The chief constable said he was also concerned that so many young children were taking part in the trouble. “I would like everybody involved in these protests now to take a step back,” he said.
“My ambition is that the protests will come to an end, although you appreciate that the police are not in control of that.
“But if not, at the very least those involved in the protests should be off the road, not causing obstruction, absolutely condemning violence and ensuring that these young people are not involved.” Mr Baggott rejected claims of police brutality, insisting that officers had been “firm and assertive” with rioters.
“I have never witnessed better policing in my 36 years of service,” he said.
“I wonder how some of our European partners would have dealt with this in the last six weeks, let alone other police forces around the world.”