Plastic bullets were fired and water cannons were used as rioting erupted again in Belfast on January 12 at loyalist flag protests, Irish Republican News said that day.
Belfast has been hit by violent protests and riots in the aftermath of a decision by Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the Union Jack at Belfast City Hall to 17 days a year.
The issue of symbols is extremely controversial in the six counties in Ireland's north still claimed by Britain, in which militant supporters of British rule (loyalists) identify with the Union Jack and Irish republicans with the Irish tricolour.
The decision has angered loyalists, but Mary Lou McDonald, deputy leader of the Irish republican party Sinn Fein, said: “The decision of Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the Union flag was a democratic decision that must be respected by everyone. It is a compromise decision that allows the Union flag to fly on 17 designated days a year. It should be noted that the Irish tricolour is not facilitated at all.
“Belfast is no longer a Unionist dominated city. Belfast is a shared city. Flags and emblems must reflect that reality.
“The protests and violence that has flared has been orchestrated by the UVF [a loyalist paramilitary] but it was stoked by Unionist politicians who put out 40,000 inflammatory leaflets in the wake of this decision.
“These protests must stop and the democratic decision of Belfast City Council respected.”
IRN said the riots continued for several hours in Newtownabbey, outside Belfast, and in Carrickfergus, County Antrim.
It said a large number of road blocks took place throughout the six counties on the the evening of January 12, causing major traffic disruptions across the region.
IRN reported on one incident, in which “an elderly man was jeered by protestors in north Belfast after they refused to allow him access to visit his dying wife”. The article said: “The number of protestors was smaller than previous incidents before Christmas, although the level of violence and determination of the rioters appeared undiminished.”
In Newtownabbey, petrol bombs and fireworks were thrown at police, and a bus was set on fire.. In Carrickfergus, one police officer was injured by a mob throwing petrol bombs, masonry and other missiles.
IRN said the rallies were dubbed by organisers as “Operation Standstill” as part of the loyalist campaign against the flag decision.
Roads were blocked throughout County Antrim and County Down, including in Bangor, Newtownards, Castlereagh, Clough, Clonduff, Dundonald, Finaghy, and all across Belfast.
McDonald called for loyalists to call off a planned protest in Dublin, saying it was “nothing more than a publicity stunt designed to stoke tensions in Dublin”. IRN reported a protest planned for outside Leinster House in Dublin on January 12 was postponed.
Leading Unionist politicians have said the flag decision represented a “chipping away” of the culture and identity of the Unionist community.
However, Sinn Fein MLA for North Belfast Gerry Kelly rejected the claim, stating: ““The trappings and the symbols within the City Hall and indeed throughout the North put paid to that claim. The place is coming down with symbols representative of Britain.”
Kelly accused unionist politicians of helping stoke the violence, and said: “What we haven’t heard from unionists is mention of equality and mutual respect. If symbols and cultural expressions are to be treated equally then unionists must recognise that we are coming from a time when it was all one-sided.
“That is no longer the case. There needs to be a discussion on how people’s Irishness or Britishness and those of other national identities can be respected and valued.
“We can make a start to that discussion with flags, but it is far wider than that and takes in the Irish language and the Loyal Order parades. Republicans and nationalists are open to that discussion, are unionists and loyalists?”