Unionists riot to block process

A wave of intense street violence has gripped Belfast and other towns in the North of Ireland as unionists seek to send a message over recent developments in the peace process.

For a third night, unionist paramilitaries have mounted attacks with bullets, petrol bombs and blast bombs. Cars have again been hijacked and burned as mobs of ‘loyalists’ continue to terrorise the main Belfast arterial routes.

Nationalists and British forces have sustained numerous injuries, with at least one Catholic man in critical condition in hospital.

Water cannon has again been brought to the hardline unionist Shankill area of west Belfast as PSNI police struggle to cope with a hard core of rioters.

On Saturday night, live gunfire was exchanged between the PSNI and unionist paramilitaries in some of the most intense clashes in recent years. Petrol bombs rained down on police lines from behind burning barricades across Belfast and in parts of Counties Antrim and Down.

The violence, which was tightly organised by the unionist paramilitary UVF and UDA, began during a parade by the Protestant Orange Order which had been rerouted away from a republican area of west Belfast.

The Orangemen, some in traditional garb, appeared to work in concert with the paramilitaries, attacking police and initiating riots as their parade ended.

Unionist politicians have failed to condemn the violence, citing anger at perceived concessions to republicans following the end of the Provisional IRA’s armed struggle.

According to police statistics, 450 were plastic bullets fired and 32 police officers were injured over the weekend. More than 50 live rounds were fired by unionist paramilitaries, while many of those engaged in rioting appeared drunk or on drugs.

One man was critically injured after being caught in an explosion, another was shot in the stomach by a loyalist sniper. Police later found seven guns and what they described as a “bomb factory”.

Families have spoken of their alarm as masked gangs hijacked cars and busses and robbed their possessions.

Tensions were already high in Belfast following police raids aimed at curbing the bloody feud raging between the rival unionist paramilitary groups, the UVF and LVF, that has claimed four lives this summer. That turf war escalated further on Friday when two men were shot in separate gun attacks in Portadown.

Then tension hit a higher notch when hardline DUP leader Ian Paisley warned that the rerouted Orange Order parade could prove “the spark which kindles a fire there could be no putting out”. UUP leader Reg Empey blamed police actions for provoking the violence.

The first hint of the orgy of violence came when a 29-year-old Catholic man was savagely beaten by 10 men early on Saturday morning on the Albert Bridge Road near the Short Strand in east Belfast. The victim remains in critical condition in hospital.

Sinn Féin South Belfast MLA Alex Maskey challenged Mr Paisley, Mr Empey and Orange Order chief Dawson Bailey to condemn the rioting.

He said: “The widespread disruption and attacks are not just an attempt to terrorise the nationalist community, but they are an attack on the whole community.

“Unionist leaders must make it clear that there can be no justification for such actions, and that they stand against this violence and intimidation.”

After snipers fired at least 50 shots at his officers following the parade, the PSNI Chief Hugh Orde, accused the Orange Order of stoking the violence. He said: “I have seen members of the Orange Order in their sashes attacking my officers. I have seen them standing next to masked men. That is simply not good enough ... The Orange Order must bear substantial responsibility for this.

“They publicly called people on to the street. If you do that, you cannot abdicate responsibility.”

Yesterday the Orange Order condemned the remarks as “inaccurate and inflammatory”, but the PSNI later released footage clearly showing Orangemen attacking police lines.

Dawson Bailie, district master of the Order in Belfast, said: “As far as I’m concerned the people to blame for that are the secretary of state, the chief constable and the Parades Commission, fairly and squarely.”

He added: “I’m not condemning anything at this moment in time.”

Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness MP has accused unionist politicians of creating a political vacuum that is being filled by unionist paramilitary violence.

“Unionist politicians and the Orange Order cannot shirk responsibility for the increased violence seen over the past few days,” he said.

“It is incumbent on unionist politicians to stop the prevarication and engage with the representatives of the nationalist/republican people now in order to remove this political vacuum.

“Unionist politicians must use their influence in a positive manner to have all activity by unionist paramilitary organisations stopped immediately.”

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© 2005 Irish Republican News