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In the wake of the first council meeting of the New Year, the city of Belfast is today once again counting the cost of a night of destructive rioting in the estates to its east, the fifth consecutive night in which violence has flared following flag protests.
Attacked after attempting to break up a serious disturbance between Loyalist and Nationalist youths at the Catholic Short Strand interface, the police were forced to use water cannon and baton rounds to disperse crowds throwing petrol bombs and stones.
On Monday, following a weekend in which a number of blank rounds were fired at police by a Loyalist gunman, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) spoke of his deep sadness at seeing boys as young as ten involved in rioting and called for an end to disturbances.
However, with no prospect of a reversal of the decision to reduce the number of days on which the Union flag is flown from City Hall to just 18, many in East Belfast’s Loyalist heartlands are unlikely to be swayed by such requests.
Compounding this anger is the alleged presence in the midst of these riots of the ‘men who never went away’, with senior members of the Loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) accused publically by the Chief Constable of orchestrating violence during protests.
Adding his voice to that of the Chief Constable, the leader of the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party Billy Hutchinson told the media on Monday “what I am saying to people in east Belfast, people belonging to the UVF, [is] please desist from being involved in violence”.
These appeals may have been aimed at the UVF leadership based in West Belfast’s Shankill Road, with the Chief Constable’s insistence that East Belfast members were acting “as individuals” an attempt to encourage leaders to restrain their subordinates.
Despite these requests though, the situation may not be that easy to defuse, as the leadership of the East Belfast UVF has demonstrated in the past.
In June 2011 sources named the East Belfast UVF leader, referred to only as ‘the Beast in the East’, as the instigator of the serious rioting along the Newtownards Road after he ordered a Loyalist attack on the Short Strand.
Responsible for several new UVF murals that year, as well as the flying of a number of UVF flags, the leader was later described as having enhanced his reputation within the bulk of the organisation despite disagreements with the leadership over drug dealing and racketeering in his area.
In October 2010 he was reported to have been ordered to decommission the East Belfast battalion of the organisation, and in June 2011 a source stated that he had been summoned to the Shankill Road and “told to wind his neck in”.
Despite this, by February 2012, the UVF in East Belfast was being described as one of “the most powerful paramilitary faction[s] in Northern Ireland”, with little or no serious opposition from its former local rivals the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).
As such, if ‘the Beast’ is using the orchestration of these riots to continue to boost his support, it is unlikely that the West Belfast leadership, which has been quiet so far over the flag dispute, will have the cachet to order him to cease.
The presence of an aggressive and active UVF in East Belfast, and its attempted hijacking of the flag issue, is something that no doubt deeply concerns those who are responsible for law and order in Belfast.
In addition, the developments of the last two nights, in which violence has broken out after Loyalist protestors singing sectarian slogans have been attacked by Republican youths, is an echo of a dark past that must not be revisited.
The decision to remove the Union flag, however short-sighted, was reached by a democratic vote and must be respected. It is now up to the politicians who represent East Belfast’s unhappy Loyalist community to ensure that they are able to regain control of the debate from the ‘hard men’.