Organised flag protests cause major disruption
Loyalist demonstrators caused major disruption in Belfast and in other parts of Northern Ireland last night during the biggest and most co-ordinated series of protests since the flags disruption began in early December.
Police also came under attack from protesters hurling petrol bombs and other missiles during the orchestrated demonstrations which were dubbed Operation Standstill.
Roads were closed throughout Belfast because of dozens of pickets around the city. Busy routes in Belfast such as the Ormeau Road, Great Victoria Street, the Crumlin Road, the Shankill Road, the Upper Malone Road, the Albertbridge Road, Tate’s Avenue, the Castlereagh Road and the Cregagh Road were closed.
The PSNI had to deal with disorder at the O’Neill Road roundabout in Newtownabbey, where petrol bombs, fireworks and other missiles were fired at police lines. The Westlink between Broadway and Grosvenor Road was closed due to a security alert.
A bus was set on fire in Rathcoole on the outskirts of north Belfast. Most Belfast local bus services apart from the Falls Road service were suspended, while people trying to get to a Heineken Cup game between Ulster and Glasgow at Ravenhill suffered delays and parking difficulties.
There was also disruption outside Belfast in Bangor, Newtownards, Dundonald and Newtownabbey.
A crowd of more than 100 people attacked police in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim close to the castle.
Later last night many of the roads were reopening as the protesters, some of them children, ended their pickets.
Willie Frazer of the newly formed Ulster People’s Forum, which has been involved in organising some of the protests, said Operation Standstill was designed to “keep the flag issue in the public eye”.
A counter Operation Sit-In was also organised last night on social network sites urging people to sit out the disruption in city centre pubs and restaurants to assist businesses hit by the demonstrations.
Meanwhile, the DUP has lodged a formal complaint with Belfast City Council claiming that it is in breach of its own equality protocols by restricting the number of days the union flag can fly over City Hall.
John Hussey, secretary of the DUP group on Belfast City Council, said the move was “the first step towards a formal complaint to the Equality Commission and ultimately possible legal action”.
The Confederation of British Industry has estimated that Belfast has lost up to £15 million in business, while the cost of policing the protests and disturbances since the flag decision on December 3rd could be about £8 million.
The new Unionist People’s Forum held a meeting on the Lower Newtownards Road in east Belfast yesterday, the area that has seen much of the violence over recent weeks.
Members of the broad church- unionist grouping such as Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt, DUP Minister for Finance Sammy Wilson and Billy Hutchinson, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the UVF, held what were described as “robust” talks with local loyalists.
Dr John Kyle of the PUP said the meeting was “frank and robust”.