Northern Ireland

Belfast police defend City Hall flag riot response

Loyalist protesters forced their way through the back gate of the City Hall
Image caption Police officers clashed with protesters who broke into the City Hall courtyard

The officer in charge of the police operation at Belfast City Hall has denied police were caught "on the hop" by rioting.

Eighteen people, including 15 PSNI officers, were hurt after loyalists rioted when the council decided to no longer fly the union flag every day.

Sinn Fein has been critical about how the police handled the protest.

Chief Superintendent Alan McCrum said how it had been handled had been "proportionate".

"We were trying to police this in a way that enabled the commercial life of the city centre to go on and at the same time provide a level of support and reassurance to facilitate the business that went on in the City Hall.

"I think the policing operation was proportionate, it was considered. The fact that no-one got into the building itself is reflective of the police being there when that group managed to use bolt cutters to cut their way through the gate.

"It was a difficult situation for a couple of minutes but the police officers exercised, I think, extreme courage and managed the situation very well in getting those people out of the courtyard."

About 1,000 loyalists were protesting outside the City Hall during a debate on the union flag.

Nationalists wanted the flag taken down altogether, but in the end voted on a compromise from the Alliance party that it would fly on up to 20 designated days.

The vote was 29 to 21, with unionists accusing the Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance of attacking their cultural identity.

Trouble started after news of the vote was communicated to the protesters. Some forced their way into the back yard of the City Hall and clashed with police.

Golf balls, bottles and crush fencing was thrown at police officers outside.

Sinn Fein Policing Board member Gerry Kelly said the police operation had been completely inadequate.

"I have to say, and I don't use these words unless I really mean them, it was a disgraceful police operation, or lack of a police operation," he said.

"If that had been 1,000 or more republicans out there they would not have left it that they were able to come into the back of city hall."

Image caption Loyalist protesters forced their way through the back gate of the City Hall

A press photographer and two council employees were injured. Vehicles in the courtyard, some belonging to councillors, were damaged.

The photographer has said he was hit by the police while trying to cover the protests.

There was also trouble in east Belfast, with police attacked with bottles and bricks in the Albertbridge Road and Templemore Avenue areas of east Belfast. Three people have been arrested.

Belfast's Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson said that it had been a "very disappointing night" for the image of the city and that "a democratic institution" had been attacked.

"This is an issue that has actually caused a lot of consternation in society that provoked a big turnout for the public consultation (on flag flying)," the DUP councillor said.

"People were vexed over the issue, but there were others who took the opportunity to make hay while the sun shone."

The DUP has now asked that the union flag be allowed to be flown every day from the cenotaph in the grounds of the building.

The proposal is being considered and requires the Alliance party to support it.

Image caption The flag was removed from the City Hall on Tuesday morning

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