Ulster Unionist party leader calls on loyalists to end attacks and illegal protests after another turbulent night
Police in Northern Ireland have said paramilitary groups are behind some of the violence that has rocked Belfast and other cities since Friday as the leader of the Ulster Unionist party called on loyalists to end attacks and illegal protests.
Overnight clashes with police left eight officers injured and led to 12 arrests. A Belfast city councillor’s house was attacked.
More protests were scheduled for Saturday afternoon, resulting in the decision to temporarily close a Christmas market in the city centre on the busiest shopping day of the year.
Loyalists opposed to restrictions voted in by councillors on flying the union flag at Belfast city hall have been holding protests across Northern Ireland all week.
The Ulster Unionist party leader, Mike Nesbitt, said: “Anyone who attacks a police officer, anyone who riots, anyone who engages in illegal street protest, is disrespecting the values of the union flag. Stop now. You are losing the argument.”
A major security operation was under way to prevent further trouble from erupting in the capital.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) assistant chief constable Will Kerr urged legitimate protesters to stay away from the city centre. “The risk to the public safety of all of those involved is simply too great,” he said.
A charity event to support young people with heart disease, which included a children’s walk, Christmas party and an appearance by Santa had already been cancelled.
Violence broke out on Friday night when someone attempted to drive a van through a loyalist roadblock of about 200 people in Shaftesbury Square near Queen’s University. Witnesses said police officers were pelted with stones, bricks, bottles and other missiles. Vehicles were also hijacked and set on fire.
Police responded to outbreaks of violence in other parts of the city and a roadblock of up to 70 people with water cannon. Twelve people were arrested, including a 13-year-old boy.
Three men – aged 17, 18 and 29 – were due to be brought before magistrates court sittings in relation to the riots.
The PSNI also confirmed it was investigating criminal damage at the house of the Alliance party councillor Linda Cleland. Police said they received a report around 1:20am that several of the windows in Cleland’s house and all the windows in a car parked at the house were smashed. Two men with scarves covering their faces were seen running from the scene.
Cleland said she would not be intimidated by violence. “This is an attack on democracy that must be condemned by all,” she said.
About 80 loyalists in Derry blocked a main road out of the city in solidarity with protesters in Belfast.
The BBC reported that Christmas events in Newtownabbey – a dinner hosted by the Democratic Unionist party mayor, and concert involving the singer Peter Corry – were also targeted.
About 30 to 40 loyalists hijacked and burned two cars. They also smashed the windscreens of other cars belonging to guests attending the functions.
Loyalist protests have been held in Belfast and other cities every night since Monday, when a vote by the Belfast city council restricted the number of days the union flag could be flown at the city hall from 365 to 17. An emergency debate is to be held at Stormont on Monday to discuss the issue.
Much of the anger has been directed towards the non-sectarian Alliance party, whose councillors in Belfast voted in favour of the restriction. A death threat against the party’s only MP, Naomi Long, was condemned by the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton during a visit to Belfast on Friday.
Clinton said she was “distressed” by the threats. “It’s unacceptable. Democracy requires dialogue, compromise and constant commitment by everyone to protect the rights of everyone,” she said.
The first minister, Peter Robinson, and the deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, joined Clinton in condemning the threats.