Serious disturbances broke out across Belfast and elsewhere last night as loyalist bonfires spilled over into sectarian attacks and quickly evolved into general rioting.
Some of the worst ‘Eleventh Night’ violence in recent years saw PSNI police battle nationalist youths in west and north Belfast following interface trouble in the Oldpark, Whitewell, and Broadway areas of the city.
Trouble began on Monday when loyalist paramilitaries began lighting the bonfires, a signal for the start of a day of sectarian triumphalism during which thousands of members of the anti-Catholic Orange Order will march.
The most serious disturbances took place at the Donegall Road boundary with the nationalist Broadway area, where loyalists had become infuriated when one of their largest bonfires caught fire prematurely.
After some confrontations at the interface, the PSNI appeared to escalate the tension by attempting to coral nationalist youths, before opening fire on them with plastic bullets. As the violence escalated to involve hundreds of youths, water cannon were deployed. A hijacked bus was later driven at police lines, while a van was also set alight on the Donegall Road.
HOMES BURNED OUT
There was a very serious situation in the Whitewell area of north Belfast, where loyalists firebombed nationalist homes. Two homes burned unchecked, creating a pall of smoke as loyalists attacked other homes along the interface with the White City.
There were also clashes at North Queen Street and on the Shore Road, where a barricade briefly blocked the road, and on the Oldpark Road, where the PSNI also used plastic bullets against nationalists.
APOLOGY FOR THE UVF
Tensions had increased in the North ince the weekend, when the loyalist paramilitary UVF organised riots in several areas in County Antrim amid increasing efforts by the organisation to exert pressure on the Six-County administration at Stormont.
During the trouble on Saturday night, vehicles were set alight in Ballyclare, Carrickfergus, Larne and Ballyduff in Newtownabbey. The homes of nationalists were also attacked in Magherafelt in County Derry.
The PSNI later angered nationalists when it apologised to the UVF over an incident in the village of Ballyclare, when a number of paramilitary flags were removed, which was said to have triggered the UVF reaction.
Following a meeting with loyalist representatives in Newtownabbey on Sunday, Assistant PSNI Chief Alistair Finlay said: “I offered my sincere apologies to those people who felt that they have not received the Police Service that we strive to deliver.”
Meanwhile, concern is growing over the potential for violence in north Belfast again tonight, where a provocative Orange Order march has been given the go-ahead to march through the nationalist Ardoyne district. DUP leader Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein have appealed for calm and urged people “to take a step back”.
The Orange Order leadership insisted the parade and other ‘Twelfth’ marches helped to generate international interest and boost economic activity in the North. Grand master Edward Stevenson said: “There is no other single event that can produce crowds like the Twelfth. It is such a special day of religion, culture, music and pageantry.”