MANY of those involved in Saturday’s flag protest in Belfast have claimed a police decision to block the Queen’s Bridge led to violence.
However, the PSNI has denied the claim saying those involved in the demonstration had defaulted on following a “preferred route” back into the east of the city.
The police have also said there was significant prior engagement with community representatives to minimise the risk of violence or disruption to traffic.
Phil Hamilton of the PUP said he was with his young daughter on the Lower Newtownards Road when he was contacted by protestors saying they were unexpectedly being stopped from crossing the Queen’s Bridge.
Mr Hamilton said he was told the main body of demonstrators had decided to make their way along Oxford Street towards East Bridge Street.
He then drove to East Bridge Street to find a much smaller number of police units than were deployed at the Lower Newtownards Road end of the nationalist enclave.
Mr Hamilton said the police were “clearly unprepared” for the meeting of loyalists and nationalists at the Mountpottinger Road junction. “I saw young republican/nationalist youths [in the Short Strand] with bin loads of rocks being directed by men,” he said.
“We feared for our life. What I seen was total aggression [from police] towards the protestors, even though they [the flag protestors] were being attacked.
“Yes it provoked a reaction, and all violence is wrong, but what I saw was people coming back and being attacked.”
Victims’ campaigner Willie Frazer, who has been invited to speak at several of the flag protests, says he has photographic evidence that nationalists in the Short Strand/Mountpottinger area were filling bins with rocks immediately prior to the police decision to block the bridge.
He said: “From talking to the fellas [protest supporters] who were out watching for any problems and taking photographs, I believe that’s why the police had to make that snap decision to block the road.”
Mr Frazer said he attended Saturday’s protest and was unaware of any prior arrangement to divert the protestors along another route.
The PSNI has said its officers at Queen’s Bridge were in the process of negotiating a safe passage with demonstration marshals when the bulk of the protestors broke away.
In a statement, police said: “Marshalls were engaging with police at the police line on Queen’s Bridge when the vast majority of the crowd broke away and ran down Oxford Street splitting at Lanyon Place. Some individuals ran along the Laganbank Road while others ran along East Bridge Street. At this stage many put on masks and covered their faces.
“The police came under attack from bricks, stones and missiles. As the protestors approached the Short Strand, there was violence across the interface with missiles being thrown by rival factions, which resulted in a number of properties being damaged in the Short Strand.”
The statement added: “Police came under further heavy, sustained attack and, given the level of violence being directed at police, six AEPs (baton rounds) were discharged and water cannon were deployed.”
Sinn Féin councillor Niall Ó Donnghaile has claimed the trouble broke out after masked loyalists “led an illegal march past the Short Strand and attacked nationalists’ homes”.
The East Belfast representative said: “People do not come to peaceful protests armed with bricks, bottles, golf balls and fireworks.”
He appealed for nationalists “not to be drawn into confrontation with loyalists” but added: “The job of community and political representatives is made ever more difficult as these illegal protests are allowed to continue and stoke tensions.”