Police used plastic bullets and water cannon to disperse crowds of rioters in Belfast as they attacked officers with bricks and petrol bombs. The city council said no protest would make them overturn recent limitations on displaying the British flag.
According to varying estimates, between 400 and 1,000 loyalists gathered in front of the city hall on Monday for a protest, marking the fifth consecutive night of demonstrations.
The peaceful gathering turned violent as a group of 250 was leaving the rally and clashed with a group of republicans.
Police tried to keep the two conflicting parties apart by using water cannons and firing plastic bullets. Five plastic bullets were discharged due to the “level of violence” to which police were subjected, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said.
Officers were attacked with stones, petrol bombs fireworks, paint bombs and other missiles, while some protesters were armed with hatchets and hammers. Rioters erected a barricade on a street and set it on fire.
Protesters were also damaging cars and two cases of attempted carjacking were reported.
Four protesters, two men and two women, were detained for public order offences on Monday, bringing the total to some 100 arrested since the beginning of the month-long conflict. This includes a man who was arrested last week on suspicion of attempted murder.
Loyalist protestors confront riot police at Belfast City Hall, Belfast January 7, 2013. (Reuters/Cathal McNaughton)
According to police, children as young as 10 and 11 were taking part in the rioting. Northern Ireland`s commissioner for children and young people, Patricia Lewsley Mooney, expressed her deepest concerns on the situation explaining that criminal convictions given to children could affect them for the rest of their lives.
Northern Ireland’s chief police officer Matt Baggott accused pro-British militant groups of inciting violence and instigating the riots.
The so-called flag riots began in December after the city’s council limited the number of days the British flag is to be flown over the City Hall of the Northern Irish capital. The vote stipulated that the flag, also called the Union Jack, is to fly on 17 designated days only, rather than year-round.
The decision inflamed loyalists, who took to the streets of Belfast in large numbers to protest against the change. The demonstrations soon turned violent with loyalists and republicans attacking each other and police. 62 police have been injured in the clashes since the protests began.
Burning debris blocks the Newtownards Road in east Belfast January 7,2013. (Reuters/Cathal McNaughton)
Monday also saw the city council meeting for the first time since the controversial vote took place last month. The city officials spent about an hour discussing the situation around the newly-adopted flag regulations.
Jim McVeigh from Sinn Fein, a left wing republican party, said he and his associates would not be intimidated by the threats and will not change their decision adding that “protests are pointless.”
Wednesday, the Duchess of Cambridge’s birthday, is going to be the first of the designated flag days, when the British flag will be legitimately flown over the building.
Meanwhile, some say the flag-riots are a vivid indication of growing tensions between Catholic republicans, who seek reunion with Ireland, and Protestant loyalists, who want to remain under British control.
The current rioting is the worst Belfast has seen since the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement, signed in 1998, ended 30 year conflict between the two sides.
Debris burns on the street on the lower Newtownards road after Loyalist protesters gathered at Belfast City Hall during a city council meeting in Belfast, Northern Ireland on January 7, 2013. (AFP Photo/Peter Muhly)
Police dressed in riot gear protect the City Hall as Loyalist protesters gather at Belfast City Hall during a city council meeting in Belfast, Northern Ireland on January 7, 2013. (AFP Photo/Peter Muhly)
A loyalist protestor waves a Union Flag at Belfast City Hall, Belfast January 7, 2013. (Reuters/Cathal McNaughton)