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PHOTOS: 14 police officers injured in Belfast protests over Union flag

A group of angry protesters clashed with police outside Belfast City Hall last night as the council voted to reduce the number of days the Union flag flies outside the building.

Image: Peter Morrison/AP/Press Association Images

A COUNCIL DECISION to reduce the number of days the Union flag flies outside Belfast City Hall was met with anger by a group of protesters last night.

The group, many of whom were shrouded in Union flags, clashed with PSNI officers during an hour-long protest in the city.

Police confirmed that 14 of their members were injured, as well as two security guards and an Associated Press photographer. Two female PSNI officers were hospitalised but their injuries are not thought to be life-threatening.

“A club came down on my hand as I was taking pictures and caught my finger really bad. It was right on the camera trigger. There’s blood all over my camera,” photographer Peter Morrison said in an interview from his bed at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital. He suffered a head wound and a broken finger.

“The police appeared to be panicked and thought they were going to be overrun by the crowd. They were shouting and screaming at the crowd to get back in the street.”

Violence spread momentarily into the nearby neighbourhood at Lower Newtownards Road, with bricks and bottles being thrown at a Catholic church. A bus was also hijacked.

Crowds dispersed at about 10pm but police remained in place in the Albertbridge Road area.

A spokesperson for the PSNI said, “There is no excuse for vandalism and thuggery in a democratic society. This is not the imagery that Belfast needs at a time when economic conditions are so difficult.”

An investigation has been launched with police stating that those responsible for the violence will be brought to justice.

About 1,000 Loyalist demonstrators protested outside the City Hall as council members voted 29-21 to remove the Union flag from the building for all but 17 designated days each year. The British flag has flown continuously from the city hall’s dome for more than a century but the change brings the policy in line with what happens at Stormont, where the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive meets.

During the unrest, gates were smashed, staff cars vandalised and fireworks tossed at police. Many of the rioters concealed their faces with hats, hoods and scarves.

While Sinn Féin and the SDLP argued for the removal of the flag to create a more neutral environment in the city, unionist councillors argued against it until the compromise was reached.

“This is a very hot issue. Flags cut to the core of people’s identity and their belief system,” said Christopher Stalford, a Belfast councilman from the Democratic Unionists. He contended that most Catholics wanted the British flag to stay atop city hall.

Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly dismissed that idea as fantasy. He accused the unionist side of seeking confrontation and the police of mounting an incompetent security operation.

Kelly said the crowd “indiscriminately attacked cars. We are very, very lucky that they didn’t get into the building or we could have been dealing with a lot more injuries.”

Pictures: Paul Faith/PA Wire/Press Association Images

-Additional reporting by AP

Pics: Protests in Belfast as council votes to restrict flying of Union flag

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