Northern Ireland

Loyalist paramilitaries 'behind some Northern Ireland trouble'

Loyalists set fire to an Irish tricolour outside Belfast City Hall
Image caption Loyalists set fire to an Irish tricolour outside Belfast City Hall

Police in Northern Ireland have said loyalist paramilitaries have organised some of the recent violence over flags.

In Belfast on Friday, eight officers were injured and 13 people arrested in clashes between loyalists and police.

Senior officers had appealed to loyalists planning to protest in Belfast city centre later not to do so.

However, several thousand loyalists have been protesting outside City Hall. An Irish tricolour flag has been set on fire.

Loyalists opposed to new restrictions on flying the union flag at Belfast city hall have been holding protests across Northern Ireland all week after the city council voted to fly the flag on designated days.

Nationalists at Belfast City Council had wanted the union flag taken down altogether, but in the end voted on a compromise from the Alliance party that it would fly on designated days.

Unionists have said they consider the changes regarding the union flag to be an attack on their cultural identity.

On Friday, six officers were injured in the Crumlin Road and Ligoneill Road area of north Belfast and two at Shaftesbury Square in the city centre.

Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr, of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said: "Loyalist paramilitary groups are now actively involved in orchestrating this disorder and we've seen that in various parts of the greater Belfast area over the course of the last couple of nights."

He said members of both the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) have been involved.

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Media captionTrouble erupted when a crowd that was blocking the road attacked a van

"We've seen members of both groups actively involved in the violence, we're now seeing senior members actively involved in orchestrating the violence."

ACC Kerr called on those planning to protest in Belfast city centre on Saturday to "step back".

"This is not the time, the place, the day, or the area to be involved in that protest. We have very significant concerns about public safety in Belfast city centre today," he said.

"We have committed a very significant policing presence to Belfast city centre today to make sure we keep people safe. We will not accept violent or illegal behaviour today and we have the resources to deal with it.

"Please step back. This is a time for calm heads and reflection as we approach Christmas. This is not the time for thuggery disguised as protest."

The home of an Alliance party councillor was attacked in County Down overnight.

The party said windows were smashed and a car also damaged at Linda Cleland's house in Newtownards.

"I saw this tall hooded person in my garden - I have a rockery - and they were lifting the boulders," Councillor Cleland said.

"There were more bangs and I heard people on the roof and then I phoned 999.

"They've literally put in all my downstairs windows, they've put in all the windows of my car and they've put in one of my upstairs windows. I have never been so scared in my life, or felt so helpless."

13-year-old arrested

Belfast's Christmas Market has been temporarily closed and politicians have warned that the economy is being damaged on what should be some of the year's busiest shopping days.

On Friday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the city and condemned the violence.

Her comments came before Friday night clashes. Among those arrested on Friday was a boy aged 13.

Three people - two men, aged 18 and 29, and a 17-year-old boy - are due in court later on Saturday.

Image caption Water cannon were used by police during the trouble in south Belfast

ACC Kerr said 27 police officers had been injured while dealing with disorder this week.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt also urged the protesters to stop.

"Anyone who attacks a police officer, anyone who riots, anyone who engages in illegal street protest, is disrespecting the values of the Union flag," he said.

"Stop now. You are losing the argument."

The SDLP's Conall McDevitt said: "The protesters are now damaging the economy of their own city.

"Last night's violence proved extremely damaging to both the footfall and the reputation of south Belfast's night-time economy, which in turn hurts local business owners and local jobs."

There were a number of developments during the disturbances on Friday evening:

  • Missiles were thrown at riot police and their vehicles in the Shaftsbury Square area of the city
  • Bricks and other missiles were also thrown at police on the O'Neill Road in Newtownabbey, on the outskirts of Belfast. Police said about 50 people were in the area
  • Water cannon was used in Belfast
  • There was trouble at the Mossley Mill civic centre in Newtownabbey, where 600 people were attending functions on the premises
  • Earlier, several small protests took place in Belfast, Bangor and Lisburn, as well as other areas of Northern Ireland
  • A protest at Alliance party headquarters near Holywood Arches in east Belfast caused traffic delays
  • Protesters blocked the road at University Street at the office of Alliance MLA Anna Lo

In other disturbances, about 200 people were at the DUP mayor of Newtownabbey's Christmas dinner and 400 were at a Christmas function involving singer Peter Corry.

About 30 to 40 loyalists who congregated at the gates hijacked and burned two cars and smashed the windscreens of other cars belonging to people attending the functions.

People at the play were delayed and those at the Christmas dinner had their evening cut short because entertainers could not get into the premises.

A situation arose where people inside could not leave and people attempting to enter were obstructed.

DUP assembly member Paul Girvan attempted to speak to the protesters but was initially stoned before being recognised by the loyalists.

He said that as far as he was concerned there was clear paramilitary orchestration.

"Irrespective of what anybody says there was definitely clear paramilitary involvement in this," he said.

"Some figures well known to myself were there and have links to the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force)."

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