The British flag flies over Belfast City Hall Wednesday for the first time in a month to honour the birthday of the Duchess of Cambridge. But the one-day flying isn’t expected to end the protests and violence that have gripped parts of this city.
There was more violence Tuesday night after protesters put up barricades on two streets in East Belfast, a working-class Protestant neighbourhood. Protesters threw fire bombs, rocks and golf balls at police for a few hours before finally being dispersed. Several other streets in the city were closed by police after more demonstrations broke out. It was the sixth consecutive night of rioting and so far more than 100 people, some as young as 10-years old, have been arrested.
The protests began after a majority of city councillors voted last month to fly the British flag only on 18 designated days, mainly those marking Royal celebrations. The decision broke a long-standing tradition of flying the Union Jack on top of the building year round. The roots of the decision date back to civic elections in 2011 when nationalist parties, made up largely of Catholics, won more seats on council for the first time. Unionist parties, made up largely of Protestants, fiercely opposed the move but were outvoted.
Police have expressed fears that para-military groups are involved in the protests and that the violence could escalate. More than 50 officers have been injured and one man has been arrested for attempted murder. One city councillor’s home has also been sprayed with shots from a ball-bearing gun.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson, a member of a unionist party, has organized a meeting of unionists Thursday to try to calm the situation. “We have invited people who have a mandate and an established position within the unionist community,” Mr. Robinson told the Belfast Telegraph.
But it’s not clear the meeting will have much success. Many East Belfast residents like Steven Baine feel abandoned by their political leaders. The two main unionist parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party, “are not doing anything for us,” he said Tuesday night shortly after police cleared a barricade along Newtownards Road, a main thoroughfare in the neighbourhood.
Mr. Baine has been part of the peaceful demonstrations against the flag decision and he opposes the violent tactics of some protesters. However he said there is huge frustration in the economically-depressed area because people feel ignored. “We feel as if we are second-class citizen,” he said.