Thousands stage Union flag protest in Belfast

POLICE were last night bracing themselves for another outbreak of violence after a protest by loyalists against new restrictions on flying the Union flag passed peacefully.

The picket outside City Hall, Belfast, yesterday ended after an hour with a rendition of God Save The Queen. Two tricolours were burned amid chants and jeers while protesters sang sectarian songs.

A Christmas market, children’s charity walk and visit from Santa were cancelled as a heavy police presence moved into the area.

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The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said protesters had dispersed, but there were pockets of disorder in east Belfast and a section of the Newtownards Road was closed. “A police officer has been injured and taken to hospital,” added a spokeswoman.

On Friday night, eight police officers were injured and more than a dozen people arrested – including a 13-year-old boy – during clashes between loyalists and riot police.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr said loyalist paramilitaries had been orchestrating some of the violence seen in the past 24 hours.

“Violence has serious and unwanted consequences for us all and we will robustly investigate all incidents,” he said.

“I am urging everyone to be calm, take a step back and think about how this violence is affecting not just their own communities but the whole of Northern Ireland.”

About 2,000 people attended the demonstration in Belfast city centre. As protesters did a lap of the City Hall, some –their faces hidden behind scarevs – banged on the back gates which were reinforced with metal sheets after Monday night’s disorder.

Up to 20 PSNI armoured Land Rovers were lined up on either side of City Hall while officers in full riot gear with dogs could be seen in the building’s courtyard.

PUP leader Billy Hutchinson, UDA boss Jackie McDonald and Jim Dowson, a former member of the National Front, were among the crowd.

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Hutchinson said it was unfortunate that tricolours had been burned.

“It is unfortunate that some people feel that they have to do that. This is about Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland republicans.

“They are venting their frustrations against republicans in Northern Ireland.”

Armagh victims campaigner Willie Frazer was also at the protest, where the crowd sang the controversial Famine Song which sparked a political row over a parade past a Catholic Church in Belfast city centre earlier this year.

Traders had feared the protest would affect business on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. However, protesters said they felt compelled to take to the streets.

David Ralston, 43, originally from Glasgow but who has lived in Belfast for 27 years, said: “I feel very, very strongly about my British identity. Obviously my own native country of Scotland is struggling but, for me, Ulster is an important part of Ulster.

“I have seen sell out after sell out to Sinn Fein – they are acts of betrayal. We must stand together on this issue. That flag is the flag of Britain and it was fought and died for, it represents freedom and democracy.”