POLICE have promised to review their actions in Ballyclare following a decision to remove flags in the town, which sparked widespread loyalist violence at the weekend.
Six police officers were injured during the trouble when a loyalist mob hijacked a bus and rammed a police vehicle on Saturday night.
The violence rapidly spread to Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus, with hundreds engaged in sporadic running battles with the police.
After meeting community representatives in Ballyclare yesterday, assistant chief constable Alistair Finlay condemned the violence but said sorry to anyone who “felt that they have not received the police service that we strive to deliver”.
As the clean-up operation began yesterday, loyalist leaders and unionist politicians met with Mr Finlay in an effort to quell the tensions.
In a statement released after the meeting, Mr Finlay confirmed he would be reviewing the police’s role.
“Community representatives expressed strong concerns about how the removal of a limited number of flags had been handled by the police. I offered my sincere apologies to those people who felt that they have not received the police service that we strive to deliver,” said Mr Finlay
“The people involved in carrying out these attacks are causing hurt and fear in their own communities. People need to take personal responsibility for what goes on in their local areas and those that have influence must seek to use it.
“The issue of flags is a very difficult and emotive one. Police aim to work with all the interested parties including partner agencies, local representatives and the community to try to find solutions that accommodate everyone.
“As is normal practice following all serious incidents, I have undertaken to conduct a full review of the issues in Ballyclare, how we reached our decisions and the actions that we took so that we can learn for the future.”
The PUP’s Ken Wilkinson said the meeting had been “frank and positive” and welcomed ACC Finlay’s promise to launch an inquiry into why the flags had been taken down.
“This was a good meeting, and I think it is important that it has been made clear that this violence would not have taken place if the flags had not been removed,” he said.
“No one is condoning the violence, but it is important that the facts about what led to this are made clear, so that it should not happen again,” Mr Wilkinson added.
It’s understood that a number of UVF members were involved in the violence and the subsequent clashes in Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus.
At the height of the clashes on Saturday night in Ballyclare – which are also believed to have included elements from the UVF – rioters hijacked a bus which was rammed into a police vehicle.
Police used a water cannon and baton rounds in an effort to control the 100-strong loyalist mob, who threw petrol bombs and other missiles at the PSNI in the Grange estate and Doagh Road areas.
The trouble flared shortly before midnight after local residents took to the streets in protest over a decision by police to remove flags which they claimed were illegal. Residents claim a number of Ulster and Union flags were also taken down by police.
Within hours, loyalist mobs took to the streets of Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey, blocking roads and attacking police.
DUP assembly member David Hilditch, who was on the ground during the serious disturbances in the Sunnylands and Woodburn areas of Carrickfergus, said he believed paramilitaries were involved.
“It appeared to be organised to some degree. The numbers of those involved varied during the night – at some points there were 40 to 60 and at other times there were several hundred.
“This was a very serious situation and extremely frightening to those people living in their own community,” said Mr Hilditch.
He said the rioters blocked some of the main routes in Carrickfergus in an “orchestrated manner” and appealed for calm in the days ahead.
“They are only wrecking their own community. We have a good-working flag-flying policy here in the borough and so it’s very disappointing that a flags issue from another town has spilled over to here.
“I would ask those who are involved in this to take a step back and look at the damage which they are doing – this has to stop now.”
Mr Wilkinson said the removal of flags had incensed the local community.
“This was a huge backward step. I am at a loss to understand why the police have taken this decision,” he said.
“Without dialogue, we have nothing.
“Over the last number of years a lot of effort and hard work has gone into resolving the flags issues.
“But here we have seen the removal of Ulster and Union flags by the police, and while I do not in any way condone the violence it is not surprising that some have reacted in this manner.”
Mr Wilkinson said he believed the removal of the flags in Ballyclare was also the catalyst for the trouble in neighbouring Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey.