East Belfast rioting 'planned' - PSNI

East Belfast rioting 'planned' - PSNI

A senior PSNI officer has told UTV that police believe "planning and organisation" lay behind the violence that erupted in east Belfast on Thursday night, injuring a total of 10 officers.

The disorder broke out in the wake of another protest over the issue of the flying of the Union flag being restricted to designated days at Belfast City Hall.

"Ten officers were injured, who were out trying to facilitate a protest - that protest was not peaceful, it was not lawful - it's to be condemned," Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton said.

Police came under attack from a crowd of around 100 people, as they stood between loyalist protestors and nationalist residents of the Short Strand.

"It's fair to say that the disorder was initiated by the protestors against the nationalist community of the Short Strand and the police, as often happens in this jurisdiction, were caught in the middle," ACC Hamilton said.

"There was also responding disorder from that community."

Petrol bombs and other missiles were thrown in the vicinity of the Albertbridge Road, Castlereagh Street, Beersbridge Road and Mountpottinger Street areas.

Cars were also set alight and used as burning barricades at both Templemore Avenue and Castlereagh Street.

People who are engaged in blocking roads and engaging in protest activity that is unlawful will be brought to book.

ACC George Hamilton

A 23-year-old man was arrested and charged with rioting, before appearing in court on Friday morning where he was refused bail.

A 16-year-old boy was also arrested and appeared before a youth court on riot charges.

One officer had to be taken to hospital for treatment, but has since been discharged.

Police say there were clear signs that the violence was orchestrated.

"When the disorder erupted, within a few moments, a wheelie bin was brought out onto the road and emptied of rubble - rubble that had clearly been broken up and that was used as missiles against police," ACC Hamilton explained.

Police also seized a crate of glass bottles.

ACC Hamilton added that, while individual paramilitary members were thought to be involved, senior leaders were not believed to be responsible for organising either violence or protests.

Police also warned that while "tolerance of a degree of disruption" had been shown in relation to facilitating peaceful demonstrations, unlawful protests would have consequences.

"There comes a point when it is no longer acceptable, when it's having an adverse effect on the wider community - in terms of economic wellbeing, in terms of people being able to go about their own business and get to work, get to hospital, and all of that," ACC Hamilton said.

"Each of these protests is considered on a case-by-case basis, but there is a very clear over-arching strategy which empowers our officers to make assessments and, where necessary, to use force to clear roads.

"And we're going to be doing that more and more."

Sixty-five officers injured since the beginning of December ... This can't go on.

Terry Spence, Police Federation for NI

Peaceful demonstrations over the restriction of the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall have been ongoing since the start of December, but serious violence has erupted a number of times.

A total of 65 police officers have been injured during that time.

Among the most serious incidents were the attempted murders of two officers in a patrol car which was petrol-bombed, and attacks and death threats against elected politicians.

Chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, Terry Spence, has called for an immediate end to the violence and harsh jail sentences for anyone involved.

He said Thursday night's protest may have started peacefully, but that it "quickly degenerated".

"It was sustained, serious public disorder," Mr Spence told UTV.

"We had members of the UVF who were engaged in attacks on police ... Stashes of petrol bombs were produced and wheelie bins of masonry ...

"There's absolutely no doubt this violence was orchestrated by the UVF."

Mr Spence added that, given the pressure being put on police, the situation simply cannot go on.

"I would appeal to right-thinking people to stay away from these protests - it's very obvious that they have long since run their course," he said.

One loyalist community worker in east Belfast told UTV that, if the claims about paramilitary involvement were correct, it should not be happening.

You bring nothing but shame and dishonour to our people whenever it goes down to the levels of last night.

Jim Wilson, community worker

"Loyalism has, for a long while, been crying out for some form of unionist cooperation and, behind the scenes, there have been people working on it," Jim Wilson said.

"My biggest fear is that it'll get lost in all this."

Adding that he understood the underlying frustrations, he urged people not to get involved in violence in the name of loyalism.

"I plead with anyone who calls themselves a loyalist, loyalism does not hurt its own community," he said.

"I plead with those organising protests, if they're going out on the streets - and they have the total right to do that - make sure it's peaceful."

Sinn Féin councillor Niall O'Donnghaile, who lives in the Short Strand area, said the disorder was not wanted by local people on either side of the interface.

"It's unfortunate that we're coming into the New Year and this is the tone that's been set," he said.

"It's beyond time that these protests - which are increasingly being seen as deliberately provocative, deliberately intimidatory because they're being held at interfaces - stopped.

"People have a right to protest and I'll defend that right. I can understand the rationale for people going to City Hall to protest, but I don't understand why people are bringing protests to interfaces."

While PUP councillor John Kyle has said on social networking site Twitter that the time for protests in relation to the flag issue is over, a number are still planned for the coming days and weeks.


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