A flags protest at Belfast City Hall swiftly degenerated into violence this afternoon after a unionist mob charged towards a nationalist enclave in east Belfast, attacking homes and launching into hours of intense riots.
PSNI police chiefs were accused of facilitating illegal parades both before and after the ‘peaceful’ City Hall protest, where hundreds of flag-waving loyalists gathered to demand the year-round flying of the British Union flag.
Following the end of the protest at about 2.30pm, masked loyalists were directed by PSNI landrovers towards the nationalist Short Strand, where they duly began attacking homes and smashing windows. They then launched into a furious daytime riot in front of the world’s assembled media.
Local Sinn Fein Councillor Niall O Donnaghaile said tensions had been running high among residents after five weeks of loyalist disturbances in the area.
“What has been allowed to happen here is an absolute disgrace and now we as a community have to deal with the fall out of illegal protests, anti-democratic protests and people who simply cannot tolerate the fact that the Short Strand as a community exists.”
Both loyalist and nationalist community workers expressed dismay at the PSNI decision to block the Queen’s Bridge, all but ensuring violence further south.
Mr O Donnghaile said a number of homes had been “seriously damaged” along the Albertbridge Road as a result of the decision to permit the illegal loyalist parade through the area.
The latest chapter of violence has also infuriated city centre businesses who lost another day’s trade. It followed heavy clashes in the same area last night and six consecutive days of riots last week.
Senior politicians from Belfast, Dublin and London are to meet next week to discuss the protests. The DUP First Minister Peter Robinson and the Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will hold the talks with the British Direct Ruler Theresa Villiers and 26 County Tanaiste Eamonn Gilmore.
Speaking earlier today, Mr Gilmore said: “This violence is being orchestrated and those behind it are known criminals, intent on creating chaos.
“This has nothing to do with real issues around flags and identity in a shared society, which are the subject of intensive political discussions at present.”
The PSNI said five of its members had been injured in the latest outbreak of violence, and that two further plastic bullets were fired. Tensions remain high in east Belfast and the Beersbridge Road area this evening.