16 PSNI officers injured amid east Belfast clashes


Sixteen police officers have been injured today during disorder in the Castlereagh Street area of east Belfast.

A Loyalist crowd walking home from an earlier union flag protest in the city centre clashed with nationalists in the east of the city. Rocks and fireworks were thrown at Albertbridge Road near the nationalist Short Strand area.

Officers moved in to separate the crowds. Water cannons and four non-lethal baton rounds were fired by officers as they came under a hail of bricks and fireworks when they separated the opposing factions at an interface flashpoint on the Albertbridge Road near Short Strand.

Some police officers have been taken to hospital for treatment

Police continue to maintain a presence in the area and are advising the public to avoid the Castlereagh Street, Albertbridge Road and Templemore Avenue areas. Some roads in the city centre have been closed.

There was violence earlier today after nearly 1,000 people staged a protest outside Belfast City Hall.

Senior politicians from Belfast, Dublin and London are to meet next week to discuss the protests.

First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy Martin McGuinness will hold the talks with Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Tánaiste Eamonn Gilmore next week.

The demonstrations against Belfast City Council’s decision to hoist the Union flag from the City Hall only on designated days like royal birthdays have brought many parts of Northern Ireland to a standstill. Non-lethal baton rounds and water cannon have been used by police as they faced attack with petrol bombs, fireworks and other missiles in greater Belfast in recent weeks by children as young as eight.

Four police officers were injured last night in another night of loyalist rioting.Police also came under attack from protesters hurling petrol bombs and other missiles during the orchestrated demonstrations which were dubbed Operation Standstill.One of the officers required hospital treatment.

The most serious disorder was witnessed in Carrickfergus and the Rathcoole area of Newtownabbey, both on the northern outskirts of Belfast.

Police were attacked with 33 petrol bombs, as well as masonry and other missiles. Vehicles were set on fire. Officers fired five baton rounds and deployed water cannon to restore calm. A 15-year-old boy and a 30-year-old man were arrested. They have been charged with riotous assembly and were due to appear before Belfast Magistrates Court today.

In a statement this afternoon, Mr Gilmore condemned last night’s violence. “This violence is being orchestrated and those behind it are known criminals, intent on creating chaos,” he said. “This has nothing to do with real issues around flags and identity in a shared society which are the subject of intensive political discussions at present”.

Ms Villiers urged restraint. “We can’t afford to have these continuing protests damage our economy and
destroy potential jobs for Northern Ireland’s young people,” she said.

A small viable pipe bomb device was found on the Westlink dual carriageway in Belfast but it was unclear whether it was linked to the loyalist disorder. Police today appealed for information about the device, which was discovered close to the footbridge at Roden Street.

Meanwhile, police in South Belfast attended a security alert in the Donegall Avenue area of following the discovery of a suspicious object in the area this morning. Donegall Avenue and Donagall Road between Empire Street and Roden Street were closed. The rail line between Great Victoria Street Station and Adelaide halt has reopened after being closed earlier.

Last night's co-ordinated action was dubbed Operation Standstill by organisers. Police said most of the protests were peaceful. Many roads were blocked off between 6pm and 8pm as protesters again took to the streets to voice their opposition at the flag decision. 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

The SDLP today condemned news that a doctor was prevented from attending a terminally ill cancer patient because of loyalist road blocks in south Belfast. The GP was travelling to a home call with the sick man when he was stopped twice by crowds of demonstrators who blocked the road. Police asked them to move but they refused, SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt said. “These are depraved acts which immediately dismiss any claim on a protest being peaceful.” The doctor had to wait until the blockade was lifted.

A PSNI spokesman said: “A senior police officer has spoken to a GP who was unable to visit a patient in south west Belfast this evening, due to a street protest at which police were in attendance. The doctor was able to visit his patient a short time later. Police are endeavouring to contact the patient and their family to explain the circumstances of the incident.”

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 six-week campaign of street action.

The Democratic Unionist Party and Progressive Unionist Party have both submitted challenges in Belfast council over the decision to restrict the flying of the flag. They claim the move contravened its equality policy.

A Belfast City Council spokeswoman said: “The decision to introduce the policy of flying the Union flag at City Hall was taken democratically by elected members at the monthly meeting of Belfast City Council on December 3rd.

“The council has taken legal advice throughout this process and the decision is in keeping with the outcome of the equality impact assessment that was undertaken in line with the advice of the Equality Commission.

“The designated days agreed are in keeping with those notified by the UK Government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport.”

Yesterday, one of Northern Ireland’s most senior Protestant ministers called on loyalists to end “intolerable” attacks on police.

Presbyterian Moderator Dr Roy Patton said: “The situation being faced by the police is intolerable and in keeping order on our streets and bringing people before the courts the PSNI must have the full support of all who want to see an end to this violence.” Unionist politicians have tried to find common ground by setting by a forum to consider ways to move beyond demonstrations, but they have insisted it was not a step towards a single unionist party.

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