Northern Ireland leaders urge calm, denounce violent Belfast protests
Leaders in Northern Ireland appealed for calm Wednesday and denounced violent demonstrations that have rocked Belfast as the work of fringe elements intent on sabotaging the peace process in the religiously divided province.
Since the weekend, nightly protests over annual pro-British and pro-Protestant parades have left dozens of police injured, including one officer who had a concrete block dropped on her head. Riot police have used batons and water cannons to disperse rock- and bomb-throwing demonstrators, many of whom were described by witnesses as teenagers and even children as young as 9.
Officials blame splinter republican groups that want the British out of Northern Ireland for fomenting the violence and recruiting or egging on the protesters. The demonstrations were among the most violent the province has seen since the Good Friday agreement in 1998 formally ended armed conflict between militant republicans and loyalists who support the British presence.
“There are still people within our society who [are] against the experiences that we’ve been involved in, in terms of the importance of dialogue, negotiation and accommodation … who do not accept that as a sensible way forward,” said Martin McGuinness, a onetime leader of the Irish Republican Army who is now the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland’s devolved government.
The demonstrations in Belfast, the capital, come during a traditionally tense time in Northern Ireland, a season of parades when mostly Protestant groups march through neighborhoods commemorating anniversaries or events that underscore their loyalty to the British crown.
But besides expressing anger over the marches, analysts say, instigators of the violence may also be trying to challenge one of the linchpins of the power-sharing accord: the transfer earlier this year of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast. The new arrangement is one of the most visible and emotive symbols of the peace process, bitterly opposed by hard-line breakaway republican factions.
Peter Robinson, the first minister, called on “our whole community to stand beside the police” and said he was especially disturbed by reports that teenagers and children had been caught up in the riots.
“We’re particularly disappointed when we see young people involved and the baton of hatred being handed on to another generation,” Robinson said.
Video footage of the protests shows masked or hooded youths hurling rocks at police in riot gear and attacking them with poles.
One witness, Gary Donegan, a priest in the violence-torn Ardoyne neighborhood of Belfast, said in a radio interview that stone-throwing boys were strutting in front of girls who seemed to treat the demonstration almost as a trendy social event, “like a Milan catwalk.”
“These children were out of control,” Donegan said. “I had children facing down what would have been hardened, mainstream republicans of yesteryear” who now support the peace process.
Authorities have promised swift arrests of lawbreakers, including the person they believe dropped the concrete block that injured the policewoman.