Northern Ireland’s policemen, who were attacked with gasoline and acid bombs, used plastic bullets and water cannons — the first time such devices have been used in Belfast’s streets in more than 20 years.
“The sustained and vicious attacks directed at my officers left them with no option but first of all to use water cannon and then sadly to deploy a number of baton rounds,” Police Chief Ronnie Flanagan told BBC Radio.
But some, including Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein, say Catholic stewards trying to control the violence themselves were attacked by police.
“People were beaten in their own gardens,” Kelly told a news conference. “Kids had to be evacuated from houses because the water cannons were being poured into them. This was not orchestrated. We had a peaceful protest which then the stewards were set upon.”
The violence came several hours after the Orange Order, Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant fraternal organization, staged hundreds of marches in Catholic villages, as they do each year to celebrate a 1690 military victory of Protestant forces over Catholic troops.
Protestants say the marches are a celebration of their history, but Catholics call them a provocation.
Police said the violence was the worst they’d seen in years.
“It was dreadful,” Flanagan said of the rioting. “It was orchestrated and it was planned.”
It is the second night in a row police have faced violence in the streets.
The clashes come as talks aimed at saving the region’s faltering coalition government resumed today, overseen by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.
Ahern and Blair are hoping to defuse a dispute among Northern Ireland’s main political parties over the outlawed Irish Republican Army’s refusal to disarm.
David Trimble, the former head of the fledgling government and leader of the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party, resigned July 1, saying the IRA had reneged on a pledge to put their weapons stockpiles “beyond use”.
Trimble’s departure dealt a blow to the power-sharing administration, set up among Northern Ireland’s pro-Irish and pro-British factions after the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.
The battle over the IRA’s weapons has also driven a wedge between the Ulster Unionists and fellow coalition member Sinn Fein, widely regarded as the IRA’s political arm.
Northern Ireland’s legislature has until Aug. 12 to elect Trimble’s replacement or be dissolved — unless the British government reasserts direct control before then.