Violence continues in Belfast as flags dispute shows no sign of abating
Belfast suffered a fifth consecutive night of violence last night following further protests over limiting the days the British union flag flies over Belfast City Hall.
Police, who were attacked with petrol bombs, bricks, stones and other missiles in east Belfast, fired plastic bullets and used water cannon to disperse loyalist crowds who had earlier clashed with nationalists.
The violence followed from a protest outside Belfast City Hall where up to 400 loyalists gathered about 6pm last night while councillors inside debated the flags row.
Most of the roads around City Hall were closed during the hour-long demonstration. At one stage a group of protesters tried to break into the building through the front gate but were held back by police, some of them using dogs.
But there was more serious trouble between loyalists returning from City Hall and nationalists close to the sectarian interface at Short Strand in east Belfast. Police were attacked when they intervened to separate the rival factions.
The PSNI managed to move the loyalist protesters up the Newtownards Road where the crowd again turned on the police.
Missiles, ranging from petrol bombs, paint bombs, fireworks and heavy masonry were thrown at police and vehicles were attacked with hatchets and sledge hammers, according to police.
Police used plastic bullets and water canon. Disorder was also reported in the Dundonald area of east Belfast.
This was the first time the full city council met since its decision on December 3rd to restrict the flying of the British union flag from all year round to 15 days each year.
The debate was acrimonious at times with no real sense of councillors offering workable compromises or ideas to resolve the flags issue.
The DUP and Ulster Unionist Party leaders met yesterday to convene a meeting of the Unionist Forum which they hope could provide an alternative voice for the loyalist protesters and help end the demonstrations on the streets.
First Minister Peter Robinson and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt announced the forum before Christmas and plan to hold its first meeting as soon as possible, perhaps even this week.
The two leaders met after four nights of serious rioting with the PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott warning that the additional police resources necessary to deal with the continuing disorder could restrict the police’s ability to address the dissident republican threat.
Mr Baggott said yesterday that some senior members of the Ulster Volunteer Force in east Belfast were involved in organising the recent street violence in that area although they were not operating “with the endorsement” of the overall UVF leadership.
“I would like everybody involved in these protests now to take a step back,” Mr Baggot said. “My ambition is that the protests will come to an end, although you appreciate that the police are not in control of that.”
Since the protests and disturbances began in early December there have been almost 100 arrests with 47 people charged.
Special courts were set up to deal with the cases. More than 50 police officers have been injured in the violence.Politicians have received death threats with the SDLP Assembly member for Mid-Ulster Patsy McGlone the latest to be so intimidated.