AS flag protestors again attacked police in east Belfast, the First Minister branded the violence a disgrace.
Peter Robinson, pictured left, said the disorder could not be justified and that those behind it were “playing into the hands” of dissident republicans.
On Thursday night, 10 PSNI officers were hurt as the row over the decision to limit the flying of the Union Flag at the City Hall continues.
Last night, the police brought water cannon into east Belfast as petrol bombs, fireworks and stones were thrown at officers in the Castlereagh Street, Albertbridge Road and Templemore Avenue areas.
The PSNI said they came under “sustained attack” from up to 300 protestors during a period of serious public disorder.
A number of officers were injured and several people have been arrested.
Mr Robinson said: “The violence and destruction visited on the PSNI is a disgrace, criminally wrong and cannot be justified.
“Those responsible are doing a grave disservice to the cause they claim to espouse and are playing into the hands of those dissident groups who would seek to exploit every opportunity to further their terror aims.”
He said some demonstrators were borrowing language from the republican handbook to demonise police and to undermine the DUP through a call for direct rule from London.
“All right-thinking unionists will want to channel their energies into political activity and to support the cause of finding political solutions to the problems that we face,” Mr Robinson said.
“In Northern Ireland the ballot box has primacy and is the only vehicle for choosing the people’s representatives.”
A campaign of sporadic street protests has been taking place across the Province since Belfast City Council voted on December 3 to fly the Union Flag on around 20 designated days only.
Some of the demonstrations, particularly in east Belfast and Carrickfergus, have resulted in violence.
As of last night, almost 40 PSNI officers have been injured, cars and property have been targeted, and a number of political figures have received death threats.
The Alliance party, which holds the balance of power on the City Council, has suffered weeks of abuse on social media websites and has had some party offices picketed and others damaged.
Mr Robinson said he has consistently and frequently highlighted the December 3 vote as “ill-considered and provocative”.
“In December I said in a joint statement issued with Mike Nesbitt that it remained our view that the cause was best served by moving beyond protest and to a political solution,” he said.
“While people are entitled to lawfully and peacefully protest there can be absolutely no justification for issuing threats, acts of violence and terror or other unlawful behaviour.
“Many genuine people were outraged by the City Council decision and were in the beginning prepared to express their anger by protesting but it is clear that alternative political routes are available and a continuation of the protests has no role in changing the bad decision that was taken.”
A new committee has been elected from the main protest organisers and it immediately issued a call for a return to direct rule from Westminster, as well as the return of the Union Flag to the City Hall.
Victims’ campaigner Willie Frazer was nominated as the group’s spokesman. He said the taking down of the flag was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.
“People are fed up. They are fed up being ignored while their British culture and identity is being chipped away,” he said.
In response to the protesters’ call for the return of direct rule, Mr Robinson said: “This is the direct rule that left unionism powerless and put Sinn Fein in the driving seat with a Dublin government fighting the nationalist case while the British government remained neutral.
“Let these so-called ‘leaders’ set out their case as to how direct rule will get the flag back or aid the unionist cause.
“And are they content to have Westminster impose same sex marriages and abortion on demand on our community? Such folly.
“Have they so quickly forgotten the decisions of direct rule in the past?”