Northern Ireland leaders appealed for calm Thursday after Protestant militants attacked offices and a home connected to the most compromise-minded political party over its support for reducing the display of British flags on government buildings.
The overnight violence in two Belfast suburbs came on the eve of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's planned visit Friday to the capital of the British territory. It underscored how divided Northern Ireland remains despite the broad success of a peace process that has stopped paramilitary violence but done little to bring down barriers between rival British Protestant and Irish Catholic communities.
"I'm looking forward to my visit to Belfast tomorrow to see for myself what the situation is," Clinton said at a Dublin press conference alongside Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
Protestant hard-liners have responded violently to a vote Monday in the Belfast City Council to reduce sharply the flying of the British flag atop the city hall. The Alliance Party, which represents middle-ground opinion and seeks support from both sides of the community, holds the balance of power on the council. Alliance voted with the Catholic side to take down the flag except for 18 official days annually; the Protestants had wanted it to stay up 365 days a year.
Several hundred Protestant protesters broke through the city hall's gates Monday night and injured 15 policemen defending the building. Associated Press photographer Peter Morrison suffered serious head and hand wounds during the melee, during which he says police beat him with clubs.
On Wednesday night more than 1,500 Protestants rallied in the northern suburb of Carrickfergus demanding that the British flag be restored atop Belfast's municipal headquarters. The protest soon descended into attacks on riot police. Four officers were injured and responded with volleys of British-style plastic bullets, flat-nosed cylinders designed to knock down rioters with punishing blows. They also arrested four suspected rioters.
Some in the crowd set fire to the nearby Carrickfergus office of Alliance, destroying it. And to the east of Belfast, more vandals poured petrol on the locked front of another Alliance office in Bangor, but police said a passing police patrol spotted the attackers and forced them to flee before they could light a fire.
Also in Bangor, a couple who are both Alliance politicians had their home's front window vandalized just after midnight Thursday, and said they now were afraid to stay in their home with their 17-month-old daughter.
"Our daughter could have potentially lost her life. Is a flag worth this, seriously?" Michael Bower told the BBC sitting on his living room sofa, with his wife Christine beside him and their child on his lap.
Christine Bower appealed directly to the attackers: "You may not agree with us, but please don't attack us."
Leaders of Northern Ireland's joint Catholic-Protestant government, the central achievement of a two-decade peace process, appealed for the protests against Alliance to stop. Alliance is the smallest of five parties in the governing coalition.
The Northern Ireland police commander, Chief Constable Matt Baggott, said the province risked a surge in street violence if extremists within the Protestant community continued to mount illegal rallies in town centers.
"To use mob rule and violence as a way of asserting people's will is compromising the rule of law," Baggott said. He called it "an outrage to have democratic parties intimidated and burned out simply because they took a democratic decision."
But several more impromptu Protestant demonstrations broke out Thursday night on streets in Belfast and nearby towns. Rush-hour traffic was disrupted, but police reported no violence or arrests as they gradually cleared the roads.
The Protestant leader of the unity government, First Minister Peter Robinson, said he shared the protesters' anger over moves to shun the British flag in Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom. But he called for protest leaders to halt their street campaign "in the wider interests of a peaceful society and to ensure their protests are not used by others to launch a campaign of violence."
About 3,700 people have been killed in the Northern Ireland conflict since the late 1960s. But peacemaking efforts since the early 1990s have greatly reduced the death and destruction, with the major outlawed groups — the Provisional Irish Republican Army on the Catholic side, and the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association on the Protestant side — all agreeing to disarm and renounce violence since 2005.
But several small IRA factions continue to mount occasional gun and bomb attacks, most recently shooting to death a prison guard last month as he drove to work.
And Northern Ireland itself remains segregated by mutual consent in many ways, with Catholics and Protestants attending separate school systems, rooting for different sports, and above all living in different communities. Much of Belfast remains physically divided by high security walls called "peace lines." The Protestant side colors its curb stones the red, white and blue of the Union Jack, while the Catholic side paints them the green, white and orange of the Irish Republic.
Against this pervasive sectarian backdrop, Alliance attempts to be studiously neutral and manages to offend both sides for different reasons. Even the party's website avoids the British "co.uk" or Irish "ie" in favor of the neutral "org."
Alliance Party: http://allianceparty.org/