Police dressed in riot gear protect Belfast City Hall as loyalist protesters… (Peter Muhly / Agence France-Presse…)
Molotov cocktails and bricks were hurled at police. Water cannons blasted back scrapping protesters. The ostensible reason behind the infuriated clashes unfolding in Northern Ireland?
The Union Jack.
The Belfast City Council decided last month to fly the British flag only on certain days, infuriating protesters who want the flag to fly all year. The symbolic debate pits Irish nationalists, who want Northern Ireland to join with Ireland, against unionists who want it to remain in the United Kingdom.
There are signs, however, that the protests run deeper than passions over the flag. Northern Ireland police accused loyalist extremists of exploiting the recent debate to flex their muscle, charging that members of the Ulster Volunteer Force had orchestrated the riots raging in Belfast in recent days.
“Paramilitaries have hijacked this flags protest issue and they have now turned their guns on the police," Police Federation for Northern Ireland Chairman Terry Spence told the Press Association, referring to reports that shots had been fired at police officers over the weekend.
Unrest has erupted in eastern Belfast for five nights in a row. As of Tuesday, scores of police officers had been injured and more than 100 people had been arrested, according to police. Death threats have been reported against Belfast officials as the furor continues.
"We will not be able to get a solution if Belfast and Northern Ireland are being held to ransom by protesters,” Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers told the BBC, calling the attacks on police “disgraceful” and a devastating blow to Northern Ireland's image abroad.
Monday marked the first time the Belfast council had met since it decided to limit when the Union Jack was flown. Though the flag was not on the agenda, councilors spent an hour debating it anyway, spurring angry words between opposing unionists and nationalists, the Belfast Telegraph reported.
Outside on Belfast streets, rioters hurled gasoline bombs at police and attacked their vehicles with hatchets and sledgehammers, according to police, who fired back with plastic bullets and water cannons. Three officers were injured in the Monday night melee.
Though unionist politicians back the push to keep the flag flying, they denounced the violence that has blotted Belfast. “Those responsible are doing a grave disservice to the cause they claim to espouse,” Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson said in a statement.
The East Belfast representative for Sinn Fein, which seeks for Northern Ireland to unite with Ireland, said it was “obvious to all” that protests were meant to intimidate Roman Catholics, not just keep the flag. “Belatedly some unionist politicians have woken up to that reality,” Niall Ó Donnghaile said.
The debate over Northern Ireland has split largely along sectarian lines, Protestants backing unionists, Catholics behind nationalists. Divided over its future, the region was plagued with deadly violence for decades — a legacy of bloodshed known as the Troubles — before peace accords were reached in 1998.
“The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want no part of this violence. They have endured too much to see the fragile peace snatched away from them,” the Belfast Telegraph wrote in an impassioned editorial on Tuesday.
“Those on the streets may not have learned the lessons of the past, but the rest of us have,” it said.