BELFAST’S Lord Mayor has been forced to flee an official engagement after being mobbed by loyalists.
Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir, 53, required a police escort to evade angry protesters at the re-opening of a park in the staunchly unionist Woodvale area in the north of the city.
The high-profile businessman and city councillor claimed he was kicked and punched during the altercation. Police said nine of their officers were injured during the incident, although none required hospital treatment.
Mr O Muilleoir did go to hospital after the incident, where he was treated for bruising and given pain relief medication, but later resumed his official duties.
Community tensions are high in Woodvale after a summer that has already seen serious loyalist rioting over a decision to prevent Orangemen parading past the nearby nationalist Ardoyne area. Loyalists have accused Sinn Fein of waging a cultural war against their community.
Mr O Muilleoir accused the protesters of "hijacking" a community event, insisting they were a "small minority" that did not represent the people in the Woodvale/Shankill area.
"When the lord mayor gets invites there must be no 'no go' areas in Belfast," he said.
"I want to be mayor for all the people.
"We just have to keep going building a peace and not be dragged back. I do not think what happened is representative of the people of the Shankill.
"My message for the people who kicked and punched me is: I will not be giving in to violence, or giving in to yesterday's men."
The mayor added: "When I became mayor I promised a year of firsts, I didn't realise I would be the first first citizen to be assaulted."
Mr O Muilleoir was heckled as he arrived at the event, which was subsequently cut short. The main trouble flared as he left the venue.
While rioting subsided in Woodvale after five days of disorder in mid-July, Orangemen and their supporters continue to hold protests over the ruling by the Parades Commission adjudication body to prevent the march past the Ardoyne.
While the majority of the trouble was on the loyalist side of the interface, at the height of the unrest in July a blast bomb was thrown at police from the Ardoyne, while officers are investigating reports that shots were fired at one of their patrol vehicles from the area last night.
Republicans have rioted in the Ardoyne in previous summers when the Orange march was allowed to proceed past the area at the conclusion of traditional Twelfth of July commemorations.
Mr O Muilleoir, a councillor for the Balmoral ward in south Belfast, had been attending the event in his capacity as first citizen. He had earlier been at the reopening of another park in the nationalist Falls Road area.
Both were redeveloped as a result of £4 million funding boost.
Democratic Unionist Social Development minister Nelson McCausland and DUP city councillor and former lord mayor Gavin Robinson attended both events.
Over recent years both unionist and nationalist mayors have increasingly attended engagements on both sides of the city's religious divide - something they were less able to do during the Troubles.
Police said the injured officers sustained cuts and bruising in what they described as "violent scuffles".
They said missiles were also thrown at Mr O'Muilleoir and their officers, with damage caused to the mayor's official car.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) commander in North Belfast, chief inspector Andy Freeburn, condemned those who engaged in violence.
"The PSNI will be investigating this appalling incident with a view to identifying those responsible," he said.
"This should have been a positive day about the opening of a children's play park in the area, but instead was marred by disorder which has left a number of our community officers injured."