‘Take your protest to the ballot box’

Flag protesters on the O'Neill. INNT 02-004-FP
Flag protesters on the O'Neill. INNT 02-004-FP

AN Ulster Unionist councillor has urged loyalists upset about a Belfast City Council decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag at City hall to take their protest to the ballot box.

Councillor Mark Cosgrove has said the only way to reverse the decision by the city council is by taking part in the next elections in 18 months time.

The call comes after a policeman was injured during a disturbance which broke out after a loyalist flag protest at the O’Neill Road roundabout on Friday night.

Between 150 and 200 people, many with their faces covered, were estimated to take part in the demonstration which began around 6pm.

Police put diversions in place and warned motorists to avoid the area during the protest which last several hours.

Shortly after the protest the Rathcoole Centra filling station was robbed around 8pm and an attempt was made to hijack a bus during subsequent rioting.

Riot police were attacked with stones, bricks and other missiles, including items stolen from the petrol station.

One officer was injured, however, police said his injuries were not life threatening.

A 20-year-old man was arrested during the disorder and later released on police bail pending further enquiries.

Condemning on the attack on the petrol station and the subsequent riot, Ulster Unionist Councillor Mark Cosgrove said: “This was a disgraceful attack on a local business and by association on the entire community.

“To try and link this thuggish behaviour to the cause of unionism, loyalism or Britishness is utterly delusional.

“The values of our great United Kingdom are those of hard work, tolerance, respect and pride in your local area.

“This is not the first time this local business has been targeted by louts and I would urge anyone who has information on the people responsible to report them to the police.”

He added: “The disgraceful decision taken by the Alliance Party, the SDLP and Sinn Fein to remove the Union flag at the City Hall in all but only a handful of days can only be addressed at the next local government elections.

“The ballot box is the only way to have your voice heard and if you don’t vote you are letting others speak for you.”

The weekend’s disturbance has been the latest in series of incidents in the borough over the city council’s decision to fly the flag on designated days, despite Newtownabbey Borough Council flying the Union flag every day of the year at its Mossley Mill headquarters.

In December rioters trapped over 600 people in Mossley Mill after a protest got out of hand. At the same time rioting broke out in Rathcoole were trouble makers threw petrol bombs at police and water canon was deployed.

Tensions were heightened during a protest in Monkstown after a motorist broke through picket lines. A bin was set on fire and there was a tense standoff for a short period before normality resumed.

And last week a car was seen driving the wrong way up The Square at those involved in a protest in Ballyclare.

Police have said there will be further arrests in the coming days in relation to the latest disorder.

Anyone with any information about any of these incidents is asked to contact their local police station on 0845 600 8000. Or if someone would prefer to provide information without giving their details, they can contact the independent charity Crimestoppers and speak to them anonymously on 0800 555 111.