Dozens injured as flag protests continue unabated in Belfast
Published 13/01/2013 | 10:51
THE only way to end violence in Northern Ireland is through the political process, Stormont's First Minister said.
Peter Robinson condemned those responsible for injuring dozens of police officers and costing the local economy millions but said protesters had become alienated.
"There are political issues and people that feel disengaged and people that feel if we are trying to build a shared future they are not getting their share," he said.
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 yesterday 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 cannons and fired six baton rounds as they forced the two sides apart. Four officers were taken to hospital, two have been discharged.
"While we have been able to tackle the issue of getting political structures up we needed to win the support of the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland," he said.
"We had to show them that devolution worked. It is no accident that the violence is occurring predominantly in those areas that are considered to be suffering from deprivation."
He added: "The only way forward is through the political process that has been endorsed overwhelmingly by the people in Northern Ireland. It won't change anything to be involved in violence."
He said the decision supported by Sinn Fein, the nationalist SDLP and the cross-community Alliance Party to restrict the flying of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall to designated days like royal birthdays was a big mistake.
"It was a bad decision but the only way of addressing the bad decision is through the democratic process."
He said unionists were providing leadership - he joined Ulster Unionist head Mike Nesbitt in establishing a forum to discuss issues - and reiterated the flag was not going to go up again because someone threw a petrol bomb at a policeman."
He said a meeting between himself, his Stormont deputy Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Eamonn Gilmore this week would address all outstanding issues.
"We are determined that we will build the kind of society where everybody can have a peaceful and stable existence," he said.
A second peace rally is to be held outside Belfast City Hall today.
Masked rioters yesterday used makeshift battering rams to attack police vehicles. Demonstrators were returning from a 500-strong protest outside Belfast City Hall against the council's decision to restrict the flying of the flag.
Countless routes have been blocked during the loyalist campaign - in one case north of Belfast a pensioner trying to visit his dying wife in hospital was turned back.
He said: "If your wife was dying what would you be doing? Have a bit of sense. Protestants, you don't know the meaning of the word, take yourselves home, show a bit of respect for people."
They responded by jeering "cheerio" in a recording made by the BBC.
In west Belfast a GP was twice prevented from attending a home visit with a patient terminally ill with cancer.
Pat Kerr has cancer but had to wait while his GP tried to get through a road block in West Belfast last night for a home visit.
His daughter Nicky expressed disbelief.
"To me, the most important thing is someone's health, rather than anything else that's going on."
Almost 100 officers have been injured and over 100 arrests made during weeks of sporadic trouble, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said.
Businesses in Belfast's city centre have struggled to cope, with many reporting lost trade, and the Confederation of British Industry ( CBI) warned some investors may think again with GBP 15 million lost to the local economy because of rioting.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said there should be a cross-community response.
Mr Nesbitt said street violence from so-called unionists, no matter what age, advances nothing but the cause of Irish nationalism.