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Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Flag fury ignites some of Northern Ireland's worst violence in 15 years

A spat over the flag fluttering over a local government building might sound trivial. But in Northern Ireland, the decision to stop permanently flying the British flag outside Belfast City Hall has sparked some of the worst violence since the 1998 Good Friday peace deal.
Dozens of officers have been injured in attacks on police lines by furious protesters who, night after night, have thrown stones, bottles, fireworks, and, sometimes, Molotov cocktails -- violence that police say is orchestrated by the Ulster Volunteer Force, a pro-British paramilitary group.
Gunshots were heard Saturday, although police said later it appeared that blank rounds had been used. Monday night saw a mix of peaceful protest and riots during which police used water canon and fired plastic bullets, ITV News reported.
According to one pro-British politician, the demonstrators are staging a “revolution with a small r” against attempts by Irish nationalist parties to “remove their Britishness.”
Irish nationalists say they wanted to stop flying the flag from outside city hall because it is also used by pro-British paramilitaries and others to mark out their territory in the divided city and “intimidate” Catholics.
The Good Friday Agreement was credited with largely ending three decades of sectarian violence known as "The Troubles," during which British troops were sent in to patrol the streets and at least 3,600 people were killed.
It created an elected Northern Ireland assembly and devolved government in which power is shared between all sides, with traditional arch-enemies remarkably sitting side by side. The assembly meets in an imposing historic building, Stormont, over which the British flag flies for just 15 pre-agreed days each year. The recent violence was sparked by a vote that agreed a similar policy at local government level in Belfast last month.
Naomi Long, deputy leader of the Alliance Party, warned Northern Ireland was now facing "an incredibly volatile and extremely serious situation."
"I don't think anyone should underestimate the threat it poses to long-term peace and security in Northern Ireland," she told NBC News.
"If people continue with violence, if it continues to escalate, if paramilitary involvement in that violence continues to grow, there's a real risk that we lose the progress we've made," Long said.

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