Loyalist protesters demonstrate against restrictions on
flying Britain's union flag from Belfast City Hall in
central Belfast at the weekend. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
Pro-British militant groups are instigating and
exploiting the riots that have rocked the Northern Irish
capital Belfast in the past month, a police officers'
The violence, which stems from Loyalist protests over the
removal of the British flag over Belfast City Hall, is among
the worst in the province since a 1998 peace accord ended
three decades of sectarian conflict.
Shots were fired at police on Saturday (local time) during a
third successive day of street battles in which rioters
attacked officers with petrol bombs, bricks and other
Police said on Sunday that 70 people had been arrested,
including a 38-year-old man on Saturday on suspicion of
attempted murder over the shooting.
Police had said that members of pro-British militant groups
helped orchestrate and took part in the first wave of
violence in early December. The Police Federation for
Northern Ireland (PFNI) said the recent attacks showed this
was now clearly the case.
"What it quite clearly demonstrates is the fact that
paramilitaries have hijacked this flags protest issue and
they have now turned their guns on the police," federation
chairman Terry Spence told BBC radio.
"It is very clear that there are leading members of the UVF
(Ulster Volunteer Force), who are exploiting this and are
organising and orchestrating this violence against police
officers who are out there trying to uphold the law and
prevent anarchy on our streets."
Both the UVF and Northern Ireland's other main loyalist
militant group the Ulster Freedom Fighters ceased hostilities
in 2007 and decommissioned their stocks of weapons following
the signing of the peace deal.
At least 3600 people were killed in the 30 years of violence
as Catholic nationalists seeking union with Ireland fought
British security forces and mainly Protestant loyalists
determined to remain part of the United Kingdom.
In scenes that recalled that earlier strife, pro-British
loyalists began rioting in early December after a vote by
mostly nationalist pro-Irish councillors to end the
century-old tradition of flying Britain's Union flag from the
"NO STOMACH FOR THIS"
Analysts said that although the violence was worrying, the
small numbers of protestors indicated they might unable to
develop any strength.
"Clearly the violence is a step up in terms of what's
happened more recently but they're simply not getting people
out on the street," said Peter Shirlow, a professor at
Queen's University who has spoken with 0protestors in recent
"Protestants are annoyed about the flag but they're even more
annoyed about the violence. There's no stomach for this, that
mass mobilisation is just not there any more."
The police federation's Spence said however it was the most
challenging time for police in a decade.
Militant nationalists, responsible for the killings of three
police officers and two soldiers since an increase in
tensions from 2009, have also not reacted violently to the
flag protests, limiting any threat to the 15 years of peace.
The British-controlled province's first minister, Peter
Robinson, said on Friday that rioters were playing into the
hands of nationalist groups who would seek to exploit every
opportunity "to further their terror aims".
The moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party
(SDLP) party said on Sunday that shots were fired using a
ball-bearing gun at the house of one its councillors in
Belfast, shattering windows.