Police car burned in flag trouble

Mon, Dec 10, 2012, 00:00

Loyalists tried to kill a police officer when they set fire to his patrol car in Belfast tonight.

The new outbreak of trouble in east and south Belfast followed unanimous condemnation by the Northern Assembly of the violence in Northern Ireland because of the row over flying the British union flag over Belfast City Hall.

A gang of 15 men tossed a petrol bomb into the unmarked vehicle after surrounding and smashing it while the officer was still inside. It happened outside the offices of Alliance Party MP Naomi Long who has been warned her life is under threat.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton said the officer was lucky to escape with his life outside the MP’s office on the Newtownards Road. They were treating the attack as attempted murder.

There were a number of other protests tonight in regional areas of Northern Ireland, including Limavady, Co Derry, and Ballycastle, Co Antrim, which passed off without any violence.

Loyalists also blocked off some of south Belfast’s main arterial routes and traffic was delayed on a number of roads.

Earlier today a motion tabled by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness condemned the trouble, sympathised with all those attacked, injured and threatened, and insisted that “any further protests be peaceful, orderly and organised in accordance with the law”

The debate was tightly whipped and carefully coordinated to try to ensure the Assembly could present a united front in the face of the continuing loyalist and unionist protests against the decision that the union flag only fly on about 17 designated days per year over City Hall rather all year round as heretofore.

While everyone supported the motion some speakers qualified their remarks. The Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said that “culture is Sinn Fein’s new theatre of war” and that the Belfast Agreement was “designed to trundle us out of the United Kingdom and to ease and infuse us into a united Ireland”.

Former Ulster Unionist Party member and now UK Independence Party MLA David McNarry while supporting the motion nonetheless complained that it did not reflect the anger of the unionist community over Belfast City Council’s decision on the union flag.

At one stage in the debate Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson - whose office in Carrickfergus was attacked - asked the First Minister was it wise to previously ask for the protests to be suspended rather than ended completely. “Nobody but a tyrant would suggest there should be an end to peaceful protests in the country,” said Mr Robinson.

David Ford, leader of the Alliance Party, some of whose members were targeted as a result of the flag decision, said last week was “a horrific and frightening experience”.

“The sense that some people in this house had more understanding for those targeting the houses and premises of my friends and colleagues was palpable,” he added.

“The challenge is to rise above the win-loss politics of ‘them’ versus ‘us’ to find a common, shared approach to flags in which we are all winners. In our view, the flags decision of Belfast City Council, like that of other councils, is respectful of national sovereignty and of the variety of allegiances that make up our community,” added Mr Ford.

“What was potentially most significant from last Monday’s vote was to see nationalist parties pragmatically, but nonetheless positively, respecting that position. It showed that accommodation is possible, if people are prepared to move beyond zero-sum approaches,” he said.

Opening the debate Martin McGuinness said there was a responsibility on politicians to “dampen tensions that have been ignited” and ensure there was no return to such violence. “We are not going back and that is the message that must be heard loud and clear from this Assembly today,” he said.

The Deputy First Minister said the violence was orchestrated and the UVF and UDA were involved. “This raises many serious questions about the future intentions of those who once professed to support the peace process,” he added.

“As we have done before we must unite so as not to allow those who would wish to drag us back to the past to take advantage of less than clear condemnation of the recent unrest. We must also challenge ourselves to be proactive in the pursuit of mutual respect and recognising that we live in a culturally diverse society,” said Mr McGuinness.

Mr Robinson concluding the debate said he shared the frustration and anger that many people felt about the flag decision but that must not lead to violence. “We consider it essential that on this day, considering the backdrop against which we are speaking, that this Assembly speaks with one voice,” he said.

“Politics is not about agreeing on everything. But it is about resolving our differences through exclusively peaceful and democratic means,” added Mr Robinson.

The debate came as politicians were under pressure to calm the situation. Three 13-year-old boys were among several youths and men charged for taking part in weekend riots, which waned yesterday. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said a number of protests over the flag controversy passed without incident.

More than 20 demonstrated at the bottom of the Shankill Road in Belfast while up to 300 people gathered on the Peace Bridge in Derry. Nearly 2,000 people attended a demonstration at City Hall on Saturday.

Senior police had warned loyalist paramilitaries had been orchestrating some of the violence that has marred the city at the end of last week and appealed for calm.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission condemned the action. Professor Michael O’Flaherty, chief commissioner, said its first annual report was being published following a year in which the past has continued to haunt the present.

The violence, which has left 28 police officers with injuries, overshadowed a visit to Northern Ireland by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Additional reporting PA

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