Protesters rally in front of Belfast's City Hall demanding the British flag be returned to the building. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
Around 2000 pro-British loyalists rallied in central Belfast
for the return of the British flag to the roof of city hall
after a vote by Irish nationalist councillors to remove it
sparked a week of rioting.
Twenty-eight police officers have been injured in the most
widespread pro-British street violence for years in the
province as the flag became a rallying point for people who
feel there have been too many concessions to Irish
Rioters fired bricks and petrol bombs at police and burned
out cars overnight, hours after U.S. Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton called for calm during a visit to the city
and warned the peace process was not yet complete.
Loyalist political parties, who share the protesters' desire
to remain part of the United Kingdom, condemned the rioting
as did the Irish nationalist parties with whom they share
Around 2000 people gathered outside the imposing 19th century
Baroque city hall, most waving British flags and many hiding
their faces with balaclavas or scarves, prompting some local
businesses in the area to close.
The crowd cheered when one protester burned an Irish
tricolour flag and sang the British national anthem before
dispersing. Banners declared "Proud to be British" and "No
"This goes on until the flag is back above city hall," said
protester William Arthur. "Ulster is British and we will not
stand for this".
Hundreds of riot police stood by, but did not intervene.
One police officer was injured during trouble in East Belfast
as some of the crowd returned home, police said.
Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr of the Senior Police
Service of Northern Ireland said the disorder orchestrated by
loyalist paramilitary groups was putting lives at risk.
"I am urging everyone to be calm, take a step back," he said.
At least 3600 people were killed over three decades as
Catholic nationalists seeking union with Ireland fought
British security forces and mainly Protestant loyalists
determined to remain part of the United Kingdom.
A 1998 peace accord has mostly held, although militant
nationalists have stepped up attacks in recent years and
community relations remain fragile, with riots erupting every
Monday's council decision means the British flag will be
flown over city hall on 17 designated days including public
holidays each year, as is the case at the provincial assembly
at Stormont in the British-controlled province.
Until then, it had flown above the provincial capital's city
hall every day since it opened a century ago, a symbol for
many Catholic nationalists of Protestant domination.
Its removal has turned the tables, sparking fears of growing
"It's not just that the flag has come down, loyalists really
sense that everything is about concessions," said Peter
Shirlow, professor of conflict transformation at Queen's
University. "Rightly or wrongly they sense that this is a one
The violence, he said, was a sign that while loyalist
paramilitaries have not in the past reacted violently to
killings by dissident Irish nationalists, they may in future.
"It's a sign that it's getting harder to maintain the peace
process within loyalism," he said. "Whether that breaks down
is a different matter, but I think it's harder to hold the