Monday 27 February 2017

Peaceful night in Belfast after riot violence

Michael McHugh

Loyalists gather in east Belfast, watched over by stewards near to the Short Strand area. Photo: Getty Images
Loyalists gather in east Belfast, watched over by stewards near to the Short Strand area. Photo: Getty Images

Hopes of an end to rioting in Belfast were growing today after a night which was free from trouble.

Yesterday east Belfast was quiet, with talks between community representatives gathering pace and an intervention by the power-sharing executive's First Minister and Deputy First Minister to investigate the main interface concerns.



Police chief constable Matt Baggott briefs his Policing Board scrutiny committee of public representatives and independent members today after three people were shot during the most serious violence in Northern Ireland for years.



Dissident republicans are suspected of firing live rounds which left a press photographer with a leg injury, while two other men suffered bullet wounds amid two nights of violence.



A barrage of petrol bombs, missiles and fireworks was thrown at security force lines on Tuesday night, with two men suffering burn injuries and officers firing dozens of plastic bullets.



A 20-year-old woman has been arrested on suspicion of possessing an offensive weapon and assaulting police.



Last night police arrested a 22-year-old man from west Belfast in connection with the troubles. A police spokeswoman said he was being questioned in Antrim.



Police said the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had orchestrated the trouble.



Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey said hopes were growing of an end to violence.



"There have been intensive discussions ongoing and I would be hopeful that they would bear fruit," he said.



"As far as I have heard there's a lot of good stuff going on and I have been optimistic."



Rioting broke out on Monday night amid UVF violence against Catholic homes in the Short Strand.



Missiles were hurled between nationalists and unionists on the nearby Lower Newtownards Road, the police intervened and became targets. Two men were taken to the Ulster Hospital with gunshot wounds.



On Tuesday night, trouble began shortly before 9pm after large crowds gathered at the same east Belfast interface.



Masked youths used sledgehammers to try to smash through police vehicles and jumped onto bonnets in an attempt to rip off the protective metal guards.



Masonry, petrol, paint bombs and other missiles were hurled at officers and water cannon vehicles were brought in.



A spokeswoman for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said detectives believed dissident republicans were responsible after a Press Association photographer suffered a gunshot wound to his right leg.



Dissidents have been responsible for a string of attacks on members of the security forces. In April they planted an under-car explosive device which killed Constable Ronan Kerr, 25, outside his home in Omagh, Co Tyrone.



Talks with East Belfast community representatives went on for much of Tuesday in an effort to secure an end to the violence. Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson has offered to help.



He and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have instructed one of their senior officials to engage urgently with local communities and their leaders in the Newtownards Road and Short Strand areas of east Belfast to identify issues of concern around the interface.



The loyal order marching season is approaching its peak next month, traditionally a time of heightened street conflict.



The UVF is one of the biggest loyalist groups and, despite having observed a ceasefire and decommissioned its weapons, it was blamed for a murder last year.



A paramilitary watchdog found that the UVF's leadership sanctioned what was branded the "public execution" of loyalist Bobby Moffett, who was shot dead in front of shoppers on Belfast's Shankill Road.



But the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) stopped short of recommending government sanction of the UVF.



The recent appearance of UVF murals in east Belfast depicting masked and armed men was seen as a bid by the group to stamp its mark.



The location of this week`s riots is an inner-city area, not far from the centre of Belfast, and has been a long-standing flashpoint.



The Short Strand is a small Catholic community in the predominantly Protestant east of the city.

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