Northern Ireland Violence Continues As Police Vow Crackdown On Union Flag Protests

Northern Ireland's police chief Matt Baggott has warned loyalist protesters his force will deal firmly with outbreaks of violence for as long as is necessary.

After three nights of sustained attacks on his officers, the PSNI chief constable signalled his rank-and-file were fully prepared to deal with the ongoing street disturbances.

"I want to commend the tireless courage of my officers at this very difficult time," he said.

Loyalists flying British Union Flags march outside Belfast City Hall

"Fifty two colleagues have now been injured while protecting the community during a series of violent incidents.

"You may be assured there will be sufficient resources in the event of more disorder for however long is necessary."

Baggott said the PSNI will do "everything possible" to maintain law and order and deal firmly with the ugly scenes that have marred Northern Ireland over recent days.

He added: "As you have seen in the last few days we will continue to apprehend and put people before the courts."

Through special sittings of the city's magistrates' court, 47 people have already being charged.

In the latest unrest, frontline officers reported coming under gunfire on Saturday. A 38-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder.

More than 1,000 demonstrators had earlier marched on City Hall, but despite tense scenes and some scuffles the rally passed off without major incident.

As the flag-waving crowds dispersed, violence again flared on the Newtownards Road and surrounding areas in the traditionally unionist east of the city.

A mob of around 100 loyalists hurled petrol bombs, fireworks, smoke canisters, bricks and other masonry at officers, the PSNI said. Laser pens were also directed at officers' faces.

Police responded with water cannon and fired three plastic bullets. One officer was injured.

Politicians and church leaders are holding talks at Rev Mervyn Gibson's Westbourne Presbyterian Church to try to forge a resolution.

But Robin Newton, of the Democratic Unionist Party, said a lack of engagement from protest organisers was making it difficult to see an end to the unrest.

"We have to find a way out of this, but how we do it I don't know," he said.

The East Belfast MLA said there was confusion about exactly what demonstrators wanted, amid calls for an end to devolution.

The British National Party and other far right groups had also been addressing recent rallies.

"I think we need a bit of calm and reflection," he said. "We need to get wise heads together."

Michael Copeland, Ulster Unionist Party MLA for the area, said he was pessimistic about a positive outcome to the talks, because there were no apparent leadership to the demonstrations. "There doesn't seem to any one person, or group of persons, that we can go to," he said.

Naomi Long, Alliance Party MP for East Belfast, who received a death threat over her party's role in the flags controversy, said she has not been invited to the talks.

Terry Spence, chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, said gunfire against police officers was a worrying development.

"What it quite clearly demonstrates is the fact that paramilitaries have hijacked this flags protest issue and they have turned now their guns on the police," he said.

"There is no doubt that it has been exploited by the paramilitary grouping known as the Ulster Volunteer Force, and it is very clear that there are members of the UVF, leading members of the UVF, who are exploiting this and are organising and orchestrating this violence against police officers who are out there trying to uphold the law and prevent anarchy on our streets."

Spence said it was the most challenging period the police have had to deal with in the last decade.

An attack on the home of an SDLP South Belfast councillor was linked the disturbances, the nationalist party said.

Shots from a high powered ball bearing gun were fired at Claire Hanna's front windows and door seven times.

Cllr Hanna, her husband and baby daughter, were not at home at the time.

SDLP leader and South Belfast MP, Alasdair McDonnell, said unionist leaders and protest organisers needed to take full responsibility for the attack.

Loyalist violence on Friday night saw 18 people arrested and nine police officers injured. More than 30 petrol bombs, along with fireworks, ball bearings and masonry were hurled at officers.

Up to 300 people were involved in the disturbances.

On Thursday 10 police officers were injured during a demonstration.

Street protests have been going on for more than a month now against the decision to reduce the number of days the Union Flag is flown from Belfast City Hall.

The PSNI said it would be seeking further arrests in the coming days in relation to the disorder and have appealed for witnesses.