6 Jan 2013

Belfast: talks to calm flag protests begin

As talks are held in an attempt to stem violence after three nights of rioting east Belfast MP Naomi Long tells Channel 4 News that flag protests are becoming a vehicle for violence to enter the city.

In the latest disturbances in Belfast, frontline officers reported coming under gunfire – the first time since the protests began in December. Around 100 loyalists hurled petrol bombs, fireworks, bricks and other masonry at officers, while police fired three rounds of plastic bullets and used water cannon during the violence.

Police are also investigating an attack on the home of the nationalist SDLP councillor Claire Hanna in south Belfast.

The regular protests in Northern Ireland began in December in reaction to a decision by Belfast city council to reduce the number of days the union flag is flown.

The Alliance Party’s Naomi Long, MP for east Belfast, told Channel 4 News that while the mainstream Unionist parties had previously “whipped up fear and tension” in relation to Belfast city council’s decision on the flag, the recent violence was being “orchestrated from a different source”.

“There is clearly an implication that paramilitary elements are now heavily involved in those protests. That’s why I have called for the protests to come to an end, because they are now becoming a vehicle through which violence can enter the streets of Belfast.”

Ms Long and other politicians in Northern Ireland have received death threats after Alliance, Sinn Fein and SDLP councillors voted to reduce the flying of the union flag at the city hall.

Confusion over demands

Hope for progress as a result of the talks was thin on the ground on Sunday. Robin Newton of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) said a lack of engagement from protest organisers was making it difficult to see an end to the unrest. “We have to find a way out of this, but how we do it I don’t know,” he said.

Mr Newton, who attended Sunday’s talks other DUP representatives, said there was confusion about exactly what demonstrators wanted, amid calls for an end to devolution.

A banner for the far right group Britain First, was reportedly attached to the railings at Belfast City Hall during the protest on Saturday. And Mr Newton, an east Belfast MLA, said the British National Party (BNP) and other far right groups had also been addressing recent rallies.

“I think we need a bit of calm and reflection,” he said. “We need to get wise heads together.”

Paramilitary involvement

The violence on Saturday broke out after the 1,000-strong flag protest in Belfast, in the Newtownards Road area of the city. A 38-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder on Saturday after police reported gunfire.

Terry Spence, chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, said the shots fired on Saturday, indicated a worrying development and were a sign of paramilitary involvement.

“What it quite clearly demonstrates is the fact that paramilitaries have hijacked this flags protest issue and they have turned now their guns on the police,” said Mr Spence.

“There is no doubt that it has been exploited by the paramilitary grouping known as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and it is very clear that there are members of the UVF, leading members of the UVF, who are exploiting this and are organising and orchestrating this violence against police officers who are out there trying to uphold the law and prevent anarchy on our streets.”

SDLP home attacked

Also on Saturday, the nationalist SDLP said seven shots from a high powered ball-bearing gun were fired at the house of south Belfast councillor Ms Hanna. Neither the councillor, nor her husband or baby daughter, were at home at the time.

A special sitting of Belfast Magistrates Court last night saw 13 people charged in connection with the unrest. One woman and 11 men were remanded in custody, while another woman was released on bail.

The PSNI said it would be seeking further arrests in the coming days in relation to the disorder and have appealed for witnesses.