SENIOR politicians from Belfast, Dublin and London are to meet this week to discuss how to quell the increasingly-violent Union flag protests in Northern Ireland.
As water cannon were used yesterday by police when rioting flared again, government sources announced that Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy Martin McGuinness will join Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Ireland’s Tanaiste (deputy leader) Eamonn Gilmore for talks.
More than 40 days of road blocks and sporadic violence by Loyalists have so far failed to produce a solution to the dispute over restrictions on the flying of the emblem.
Gilmore said yesterday: “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.”
Sixteen police officers were injured yesterday as Loyalists escalated their protest against plans to limit the flying of the Union flag over the City Hall.
The total number of officers injured in the riots increased to 74 as violence broke out in the Castlereagh Street area of east Belfast. Police deployed water canons in a bid to disrupt the rioters and fired “non-lethal” rounds.
There was also trouble near the nationalist Short Strand enclave in east Belfast as protesters walked past it having gathered at the City Hall for another demonstration. Police brought in water canons as the rioting continued. Earlier, nearly 1,000 people gathered at Belfast City Hall to protest. Some roads in the city centre were closed and police advised motorists to avoid the area.
On Friday night, four police officers were injured in Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus in County Antrim. Officers fired five plastic bullets as rioters threw more than 30 petrol bombs.
The riots are likely to dominate this week’s meeting, although it was being stressed it was one of a regular series of summits involving the UK, Irish and Northern Irish administrations.
“I have no doubt they will form a large part of the discussions,” a Northern Ireland Office spokeswoman said. “If these riots continue they do have the potential to destabilise things, which nobody wants.”
The demonstrations against Belfast City Council’s decision to hoist the Union flag from the City Hall only on designated days, like royal birthdays, have brought many parts of Northern Ireland to a standstill.
Police have been attacked with petrol bombs, fireworks and other missiles in greater Belfast in recent weeks by children as young as eight.
There were region-wide road blocks in Northern Ireland on Friday night, forcing many office workers to leave Belfast early and making the city centre relatively quiet.
A pipe bomb was discovered on one arterial route and many others were closed because of protests, police said.
Fans attending major sporting fixtures like the Heineken Cup pool match between Ulster and Glasgow Warriors in south Belfast, on Friday, were affected.
Businesses in Belfast centre have struggled to cope, with many reporting lost trade, and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warned some investors may think again.
A doctor was prevented from attending a terminally ill cancer patient because of Loyalist road blocks in south Belfast. The GP was travelling to a home call with the sick man when he was stopped twice by crowds of demonstrators who blocked the road. Police asked them to move but they refused, according to nationalist SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt.
“These are depraved acts which immediately dismiss any claim on a protest being peaceful,” he said.
A Unionist forum chaired by DUP leader Peter Robinson and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt met last week to discuss ways of empowering Loyalist working class communities.