7 Jan 2013

Paramilitaries join protests as Belfast council returns

Police fear there will be a repeat of violent scenes in Belfast as the council returns, and claim senior members of the Ulster Volunteer Force are leading violence in parts of Belfast.

Belfast city council will meet today for the first time since it voted to only fly the union flag on designated days, a move that has provoked weeks of violent protests across northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, has called for an end to all demonstrations across the region after 62 police officers were injured, and is blaming members of the paramilitary UVF for leading violence in some areas.

“Senior members of the UVF in east Belfast as individuals have been increasingly orchestrating some of this violence – that is utterly unacceptable and is being done for their own selfish motives,” Mr Baggott revealed.

The chief constable believes the UVF involvement is limited to east Belfast, and there is currently no collective endorsement from the organisation.

Billy Hutchinson leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, the political grouping linked to the UVF, has called on the protesters to “move to the next level, whatever that next level is.”

Mr Hutchinson claims he met with police to discuss the protests, raising issues about “zero tolerance policing” and public order restrictions on parades.

In a statement posted to YouTube last night, Mr Hutchinson said the PUP’s “people on the ground” will be working with protesters to advise them on the public order act, but added: “I do want to reiterate that what we want to see is peaceful protest.”

Paramilitary presence

East Belfast PUP Councillor John Kyle told Channel 4 News that he has seen members of paramilitary groups at protests but said they were not leading the events.

He believes that social media has given a new dimension to the protests as there are prominent figures in the movement but no official organisers.

Cllr Kyle explained that the protesters are not just “isolated agitators” and that there is widespread anger in the community over the removal of the flag: “The vast majority are in agreement but they are disgusted with the violence.”

“There is a need to facilitate discussion, people need a way to express their opposition. People have lost trust in political leaders, there is a need for dialogue.”

Call for direct rule

Willie Frazer, a campaigner for victims of IRA violence, is the official spokesman for the Ulster People’s Forum, a disparate group formed last week in an attempt to provide political leadership for the protests born out of mistrust of mainstream unionism.

Speaking after their formative meeting, Frazer declared “We unanimously supported a return to direct rule” and went on to claim that “one-sided inquiries about the past have to stop; the demonisation of the security forces has to stop”.

Fraser is a controversial figure who, despite contesting several elections since 1996, has never gained a seat and often lost his deposit. In 2011 his victims group Families Acting for Innocent Relatives was asked to give back £350,000 in funding to the EU.

Down from the mast

Fraser is planning to lead a group of 150 protesters to Dublin this weekend to protests outside the Irish parliament calling for the tricolour to be removed from the building. However, the flag will not be flying at it is only raised on days when the house is in session.

In 2006 Fraser’s planned Love Ulster march through Dublin was re-routed when rioting broke out as republicans blockaded the streets and opportunists looted shops. Dissident republicans have already warned Fraser to stay out of the city. A Continuity IRA spokesman told the Irish Sun: “We will not be found wanting. Loyalists need to think twice about marching in this city.”

A proposal to fly the union flag 365 days a year at the garden of remembrance in the grounds of city hall is not being debated at today’s council meeting, SDLP Councillor Tim Attwood says the earliest it will be discussed is February.