A loyalist mob which had gathered outside Belfast City Hall this evening erupted into violence following a vote to limit the days on which the British Union Jack flag flies above the building.
The mob charged through the building and even breached the council chamber as the PSNI police stayed clear.
Loyalists who had gathered in east Belfast also attacked St Matthew’s Catholic church after the result of the vote was announced.
The vote to reduce the flying of the Union Jack to 17 days a year, mainly British celebratory and commemorate events, had been widely expected.
But the compromise between nationalist councillors and the moderate unionist Alliance Party provoked unionist extremists who had rallied supporters from Scotland and England for a “protest”.
A low-profile policing presence appeared designed to encourage violence, and the mob set about burning Irish tricolour flags in the city centre area well before the vote was taken.
The debate centred on a motion to fly the British flag on designated days during the year, rather than year-round.
Despite their fading majority in local elections in the city, many unionists and loyalists saw the decision to “take down” the Union Jack as symbolic.
The flying of the British flag over Belfast City Hall has long been seen as a metaphor of unionist domination in the city. Despite losing a clear majority on the council several years ago, the motion which went before the council was a compromise negotiated between nationalists and the moderate unionist/cross-community Alliance Party. It allows the British flag to continue to fly on 15 days out of the year (see below).
The move by Alliance, which holds the balance of power on the council, was strongly condemned by the DUP and unionist extremists. Before the vote, leaflets had been distributed in many areas of the city, blaming Alliance for the historic shift.
In the end, the motion was passed by 29 votes to 21. News of the outcome acted as a trigger for the mob, who, in the absence of any PSNI intervention, knifed a security guard in the neck before marauding through the building’s courtyard, as well as setting fire to vehicles outside.
The Press Association (PA) also said that one of its photographers has sustained a head injury after getting caught up in the violence at the city hall.
The nationalist SDLP councillor, Tim Attwood, who took part in the vote, said: “This was an appalling spectacle, resulting in significant damage to property and, most alarmingly, injury to a number of those seeking to keep City Hall secure, and our thoughts are with those who were hurt.
“Any attempt at a resort to mob rule cannot be countenanced,” Mr Attwood said.
Marie Hendron from Alliance said the violence had been orchestrated. She said the scenes of violence in the tourist-oriented city centre area had been a “disaster for this city”. Some tourists were reported to have been confronted and intimidated by the mob.
Sinn Fein’s policing spokesperson Gerry Kelly said the police response had been inadequate.
He said: “I have to say, and I don’t use these words unless I really mean them, it was a disgraceful police operation - or lack of a police operation.”
“If that had been 1,000 or more republicans, it would have been very different. There they would not have left it that they were able to come into the back of City Hall.
“They indiscriminately attacked cars. We are very, very lucky that they didn’t get into the building or we could have been dealing with a lot more injuries.”
Mr Kelly said he would be raising what he described as “major failings” at a meeting of the Policing Board on Thursday.
He said: “I am angry because it’s not as if they were taken by surprise. This was a well-planned protest. There were discussions with police about previous experience. Everyone knew this was a vote which was going to affect people in different ways.
“At a very early stage today, it was clear it was a huge protest and that it could turn ugly.”
According to this evening’s motion, the British Union Jack will be flown above Belfast City Hall on the following days:
* 20th January (Birthday of The Countess of Wessex)
* 6th February (Her Majesty’s Accession)
* 19th February (Birthday of The Duke of York)
* A notified day in March (Commonwealth Day)
* 10th March (Birthday of The Earl of Wessex)
* 17th March (St Patrick’s Day)
* 21st April (Birthday of Her Majesty The Queen)
* 9th May (Europe Day)
* A notified day in June (Official Celebration of Her Majesty’s Birthday)
* 2nd June (Coronation Day)
* 10th June (Birthday of The Duke of Edinburgh)
* 4th August (Birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother)
* 15th August (Birthday of The Princess Royal)
* 21st August (Birthday of The Princess Magaret)
* A notified Sunday in November (Remembrance Day)
* 14th November (Birthday of The Prince of Wales)
* 20th November (Her Majesty’s Wedding Day)