NORTHERN Ireland’s most senior police officer has praised his “courageous” colleagues after sectarian rioting left 29 members of the force injured.
Police Service of Northern Ireland chief constable Matt Baggott said the vast majority of people were grateful for their efforts as fireworks, bricks and other missiles rained down on them.
Violence broke out in east Belfast between republicans and loyalists returning from a protest at Belfast City Hall over a council decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag there.
The chief constable said: “This was a difficult operation dealing with a large number of people determined to cause disorder and violence. My colleagues brought the situation under control with exceptional courage and professionalism.”
Trouble erupted on Saturday afternoon on the Albertbridge Road near the nationalist Short Strand and police separated the opposing factions. As the loyalists 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.
Police used water cannon and fired six baton rounds as they forced the two sides apart. Four officers were taken to hospital, two have been discharged.
Mr Baggott added: “I know the vast majority of people will be grateful for their efforts. Police will continue to engage with all those committed to finding a solution to these issues.”
Demonstrators were returning from a 500-strong protest outside Belfast City Hall against the council’s decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag to designated days like royal holidays. According to police they were made aware that the preferred route home would bypass part of the Short Strand. Instead they gathered at a bridge barred by officers then broke away and ran towards Short Strand by different roads.
Senior politicians from Belfast, Dublin and London are to meet next week to discuss the protests after more than 40 days of road blocks and sporadic violence by loyalists failed to produce a solution. Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy Martin McGuinness will join Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Ireland’s Tanaiste (deputy leader) Eamon Gilmore.
Ms Villiers urged restraint. She said: “We can’t afford to have these continuing protests damage our economy and destroy potential jobs for Northern Ireland’s young people.”