UNIONISTS have accused republicans of using the flags issue to stir up trouble in a community "where tensions did not previously exist".
The comments come after a crowd of loyalists attempted to remove two tricolours at a nationalist bonfire site at Peggys Loaning in Banbridge on Tuesday night.
Police moved in and arrested a number of people and four men have since been charged with a number of public order offences.
The planned bonfire on the edge of the mixed Edenderry Park estate is ostensibly to commemorate Hibernians Day on Saturday, but those behind it have been accused of staging the bonfire to provoke a reaction.
DUP MP for the area David Simpson has blamed republicans for trying to create trouble.
He said: "Over the last few years we have seen a repeated effort by republicans to turn up the heat in Banbridge and create community tensions where none had previously existed.
"This insidious campaign has included bigoted and petty attempts to remove the Union Flag from the council offices, despite the fact that more than 90 per cent of the public who responded to a consultation on the issue stated that they wanted it to remain.
"This campaign has been two-pronged: in the council chamber and on the streets.
"Now we see its consequences: disturbances on the streets of a peaceful market town."
Mr Simpson said the police had "serious questions to answer" over the events on Tuesday night.
He said: "The law allows for the removal of flags where there is potential for civil disorder and yet the police failed to remove the Irish tricolours that were erected in the town.
"I am concerned that, if reports are to be believed, the police only moved to arrest people when an attempt was made to erect a Union Flag. I will be taking this issue up with the local police.”
Local nationalist councillors were also critical of the bonfire and the erection of the tricolours, but said the organisation of a loyalist mob was a sinister development.
Seamus Doyle of the SDLP says he is worried it could all start up again if more flags are put up, if and when the bonfire goes ahead.
He said the incident on Tuesday night also raised questions about equality in the town.
“The fact that there has been this kind of reaction when two tricolours go up when the town is plastered in Union Flags raises questions about equality.
“I’d rather see no flags anywhere – they create fear and are detrimental to any area and property values.”
Sinn Fein councillor Dessie Ward, who has been the target of unionist anger for calling for a change in council policy on flying the Union Flag, said he would also favour a totally flag-free policy.
He said while he was worried by the actions of the loyalist crowd, he was also concerned at the motives of those involved in the bonfire.
He said he was seeking to defuse the situation.
“I have tried to reason with the people behind this bonfire but there is no talking to them as they don’t seem to understand what they are doing.
“The people in this area just want peace and if that means a couple of tricolours have to come down, so be it.
“There’s no respect in hanging a flag from a lamppost, but we have to change people’s mindsets.”
The PSNI said it was trying to deal with a complex issue.
A spokeswoman said: “Police are aware of an ongoing issue about the erection of flags in the Banbridge area and have been engaged with both elected and community representatives, and officials, in a bid to have the matter resolved.
“This is an ongoing process of engagement.”