Northern Ireland

Flag protests: Loyalty no excuse for violence, says police chief

The PSNI's Chief Constable Matt Baggott has criticised the violence surrounding loyalist union flag protests.

Mr Baggott said that paramilitaries had been present at some of the protests and police would examine if there was a "conspiracy".

It follows trouble at demonstrations following the decision to stop flying it at Belfast City Council every day.

"Loyalism can never be an excuse or adherence to a flag can't be an excuse to compromise democracy," he said.

"To use mob rule and violence as way of asserting people's will is compromising the rule of law.

"I call on people to take a step back - there is far too much at stake for the future and for the here and now."

Mr Baggott said that since Monday, 19 officers had been injured in trouble associated with protests and seven people have been arrested.

"Clearly we do have paramilitaries involved, some are involved as individuals, some are involved within their communities but we will be looking very carefully indeed to see whether there has been any conspiracy and a degree of orchestration," he added.

A loyalist mob set fire to an office in Carrickfergus in County Antrim on Wednesday night and the home of two councillors in Bangor was attacked.

There was also an attempted arson at the constituency office of Alliance minister Stephen Farry.

The leader of Northern Ireland's Alliance party, David Ford, called the attacks an "assault on democracy".

Mr Ford said if people were called onto the streets in a "charged atmosphere violence is almost inevitable".

Mr Ford, who is also the Stormont justice minister, said police are monitoring social media with a view to prosecuting anyone involved in organising violence.

He added: "There are certainly people who have been posting messages on social media which amount to incitement to hatred, incitement to commit criminal offences such as arson and that is being monitored (by the police service).

"It is up to them to consider the issue of what charges may or may not be appropriate and up to the Public Prosecution Service to then follow that through."

Mr Ford has requested the Northern Ireland Assembly be recalled on Thursday to discuss the attacks. This has been backed by the SDLP's Pat Ramsey and two Ulster Unionist assembly members, Basil McCrea and John McCallister.

On Wednesday, about 1,500 people gathered in Carrickfergus to protest over the flag decision.

The crowd dispersed but some people stayed behind, trouble broke out and missiles, bottles and masonry were thrown at police.

Rioting continued in nearby West Street, where Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson has a constituency office.

It was ransacked and the rioters tried to set it on fire. The building was smoke damaged.

Mr Dickson said he had received hundreds of calls and texts from people across the country who were "sickened by the violence".

Police fired a number of baton rounds at the crowd.

A 20-year-old woman appeared in court on Thursday charged with riotous behaviour and assaulting police in connection with the violence in the town.

The area commander for Carrickfergus, Superintendent Philip Knox, said they were intent on bringing those involved in the violence to justice.

"We are in no doubt that there was a degree of orchestration to the disorder," he said.

"People came armed with fireworks, they had balaclavas and masks in their possession."

Assembly call

The home of a couple who are both Alliance party councillors in Bangor, County Down, was also attacked.

Paint was thrown at Michael and Christine Bower's home, smashing a front window close to where their 17-month old daughter daughter normally plays. No-one was injured.

Image caption Several police vehicles were damaged in the violence

Mr Bower said he was sitting in his living room at about 23:00 GMT on Wednesday when the attack happened. The device shattered a pane in the double-glazed window of the front living room.

"There is damage to the window, but it could so easily have been so much worse. If events had been different, a young life could have been lost. I would plead with people to calm down and to stop attacking representatives doing their best to support their communities," he said.

North Down Alliance MLA Stephen Farry said there was an attempted arson attack on his constituency office in Bangor.

"Petrol or some other accelerant was poured over my shutters by a number of people," he said.

"Fortunately, they were interrupted by a passing police patrol and fled the scene."

'Brains, not brawn'

DUP MP Sammy Wilson condemned the attack in Carrickfergus, which he said was "morally wrong, legally wrong and politically wrong".

"I have made it quite clear that to engage in protest is one thing, to engage in violence is another," he said.

"If people believe they cannot contain a protest and it is going to turn to violence then they shouldn't do it."

However, he claimed that "Sinn Fein and the SDLP had poked at the sectarian fires in the last number of months".

He added that the "Alliance party ought to have known that by helping them in doing that in Belfast they were going to create a problem".

"For the last number of months, Sinn Fein and the SDLP have been poking the hornet's nest with sectarian bigotry in Newry and Armagh where they named a play park after a killer; in Dungannon, where they called for the person who attempted to kill a councillor to be released from jail, and then raised the issue of the flags which they knew would open all of these tensions in Belfast City Council and the Alliance party aided and abetted them in Belfast City Council," he added.

"That's the context and anyone knowing what was happening on the ground in Northern Ireland could not have been surprised that a Pandora's box was being opened."

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinnesss said: "This is an attack on the democratic decision taken in Belfast City Hall by those who are democratically elected to represent the people of this city.

"Political unionism needs to accept that. They need to call for an end to these protests and for those involved to step back."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt MLA condemned the violence.

He said: "What unionism needs today is brains, not brawn. We need an analysis, a strategy and an agreed outcome. I am happy to talk to anyone, if they commit to repent and desist from violence."

Jim Allister of TUV said the violence was "utterly wrong" and was not the way forward.

Billy Hutchinson, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, said there was a republican strategy, to divide Ulster loyalism from British unionism.

"This was not done by loyalists on the street, this was done by unionists who have fears and have frustration around all of this," he said.

A loyalist flag protest also took place in Lurgan.

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