Mainstream unionist politicians have withdrawn from police boards, condemning the PSNI police -- but not rioters -- after a fifth night of disturbances in Belfast.
Road blockades again mixed with riots last night in a repeat of this week’s nightly scenes of orchestrated unionist violence.
The illegal road blockades show no signs of abating and are now being fronted by loyalist women and children. Yesterday, the PSNI expressed the fear that any attempt to remove them would leave their members open to attack from unionist paramilitaries.
Belfast’s most senior PSNI officer Duncan McCausland said: “I have clear indications that if I move against women and children, paramilitaries or other organisations in the community may come out against me and my officers.”
However, the PSNI later appeared to regain its nerve and challenged some gangs blocking the main arterial roads, to the relief of nationalists but angering unionists.
Meanwhile, an arrest operation in the north of the city on Thursday provoked a violent response as gangs of so-called loyalists hijacked cars and lorries to form burning barricades.
By nightfall, rioting had erupted on the Crumlin, Ballygomartin and West Circular Roads, while the PSNI responded with water cannon.
The latest violence comes after a weekend of organised rioting which was launched after a Parades Commission decision to reroute an Orange Order march 120 feet away from a Catholic area.
Unionist politicians have been condemned for not denouncing the violence, suggesting instead that dissatisfaction with the peace process and/or economic deprivation may be behind the riots.
Last month, the Provisional IRA announced the end of its armed struggle and is currently in the process of destroying its weapons. The British government has now ordered the dismantling of a number of military bases and the gradual disbandment of the locally-recruited battallions of the British Army’s Royal Irish Regiment. Unionists have reacted angrily and fearfully to the change, believing their traditionally dominant position is being undermined.
The main unionist political parties -- Ian Paisley’s DUP and Reg Empey’s UUP -- have now strongly criticised police actions, which they claim are fuelling the violence. The two parties have now agreed to boycott local police boards in Belfast in protest.
Following a meeting of a parades forum in the north and west of the city, unionist politicians accused senior police officers of intransigence and claimed the relationship with the community had broken down.
Naomi Long, a representative of the moderate unionist Alliance Party which has condemned the violence, described the unionist boycott as “disappointing and shameful”.
She said: “I’m absolutely dumbfounded by the lack of leadership and integrity we are seeing within unionism in the face of some of the most serious rioting and disorder we have seen in recent days.
“When push comes to shove, the commitment of unionist politicians to the defence of police and the rule of law and order is just tactical and superficial. It’s skin deep.”
In the latest incidents, a woman living off the Springfield Road in west Belfast -- where the trouble first erupted on Saturday -- was forced to flee her home Tuesday from a loyalist mob chanting “Kill the Taigs [Catholics]”.
Her house, where she had lived alone for the past year and a half, is near the route taken by the Whiterock Orange Order parade last Saturday.
Speaking on Wednesday, she said: “I just had to get out last night. There was a mob of about 200-300 attacking this woman Sarah’s house. They were attacking the house and dancing on her car and stuff like that. They were waving swords and machetes and shouting ‘Kill the Taigs’.”
Her house is only a short distance from the scene of the worst trouble last weekend, where loyalists mounted sustained rioting with gunfire, petrol and blast bombs.
More than 50 civilians and police were treated for injuries, including 22-month-old Caleb Moore, who suffered a fractured skull after he was hit by a rock thrown at his father’s car.
Robert Moore was trying to make his way onto the M2 motorway when his car was attacked. “Some people came out from over a wall and threw bricks at the car. The bricks came through the windscreen and two windows at the driver’s side striking my son Caleb on the front of his head.”
Moore said his son was screaming and there was blood everywhere. “All I could do was to keep driving and hope I wasn’t driving into anything worse.”
Caleb was taken to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.
As the sedatives wore off after a night of fear Louise O’Prey began to search for somewhere else to live, wary that those who live nearby could point her out to the mob that has rampaged through the area these past few nights.
“This has been going on since Wednesday of last week. There was never anything before that.” Her speech is as tense as it is rapid. Still wearing pyjamas and slippers after seeking comfort in a neighbour’s home in the middle of the night, she tells of the recent intimidation.
She says she spent some time on the floor of her room, trying to ensure her doors and windows were secure, fearful the youths outside would come for her.
“I rang the police at nine o’clock and I told them I was under attack. Nothing happened and I phoned again after 10 minutes. This policemen I was talking to - he was really rude - said: ‘I don’t understand why you’re ringing’. And I shouted back at him: ‘Look, there’s people coming up the lane towards me here and they’ve got swords.”