Northern Ireland

Belfast flag protests: Youths "led by the nose" to jail

People organising riots are leading young people "by the nose towards prison", Northern Ireland's Chief Constable Matt Baggott has said.

It follows another weekend of disorder after some union flag protests.

Mr Baggott defended a police operation on Saturday when a "breakaway crowd" of loyalist protesters marched past a nationalist area in east Belfast.

"Residents should not have been put through that. I'm sorry they were put through that trauma," he said.

He warned those taking part in the riots "a knock on the door was coming".

Mr Baggott said that police estimated more than 4,000 people took part in street protests on Friday across Northern Ireland.

Some descended into rioting, with police attacked in Rathcoole in Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus in County Antrim and in east Belfast.

Twenty-nine police officers were injured at the weekend in rioting at east Belfast's Short Strand interface. One remains in hospital.

It followed a loyalist protest over the decision to restrict the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall.

Mr Baggott said that "sweeping protesters" off the streets would not work.

"Even when the PSNI was 12,000 strong it would have not have been possible to take such a rigid approach towards protests. Our approach has always been to be measured and responsible - we have simply to put public safety first." he said.

He said that the parades were not being properly regulated.

"I want to see an absolute reassertion of the rule of law in relation to the Parades Commision's position," he said.

"You can't have public safety and unregulated parades - they don't go together. I want to see a total assertion again that the only way to allow peaceful protest must be through proper notification, proper planning and proper regulation and that needs to a universal voice across politics and from those who are community activists."

Mr Baggott said his overwhelming sentiment and those of the vast majority of people is sadness.

"Sadness that we've seen another weekend of disorder, another weekend where inevitably as the weeks unfold, young people predominantly being brought before the courts with their lives being blighted by criminal convictions," he said.

Northern Ireland's politicians have been condemning the continuing street protests. During a debate at Stormont Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness alleged that two senior UVF figures were involved in orchestrating the disorder were well known drug pushers.

Tourism Minister Arlene Foster told the Assembly she was "incredibly frustrated" by the scenes of violence being shown around the world.

Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce is to meet later this week to discuss the effects of the ongoing protests on business.

The chamber said they are causing continuing hardship for the business community.

The meeting has been arranged to hear first hand from business owners.

Meanwhile, at least 1,000 people gathered outside Belfast City Hall at lunchtime on Sunday to protest against the violence.

There were no speeches, but for five minutes they clapped, cheered, whistled, and banged drums in what they called an "anti-silence".

People said they were representing "the silent majority" who were opposed to violence and trouble.

Loyalist street demonstrations have been taking place for almost six weeks, since Belfast City Council voted to change its longstanding union flag policy on 3 December.

The council, which now has more nationalist members than unionists and with the Alliance party holding the balance of power, voted to fly the flag at Belfast City Hall on a number of designated days, rather than every day of the year.

The majority of the street demonstrations have passed without incident, but some have resulted in serious rioting in which 101 police officers have been injured.

To date 112 people have been arrested, of whom 85 have been charged.

On Saturday there was rioting as a flag protest made its want back into east Belfast from the city hall.

The police said that the route was meant to be over the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge and along the Newtownards Road where the interface with the nationalist Short Strand is shorter and a large wall protects the houses. Police were there in force with screens to keep the sides apart.

However, protesters went along the Queen's Bridge which police had closed. As marshals of the protest talked with police hundreds of protesters headed back towards the city centre, but then headed over the Albert Bridge, a return route that would bring them across the southern face of Short Strand.

Police moved into the area and were present, but did not put up any screens.

As the crowd passed there were missiles thrown from the nationalist side and then both sides started throwing missiles.

The police had to separate the two groups and pushed some nationalists into the Short Strand, and loyalists away from the interface.

A stand-off developed and then loyalists attacked the police with stones and bottles, and the police used water cannon.

Image caption The loyalist protesters went over the Albert Bridge and passed the nationalist Short Strand area where there were clashes

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