Why protest turned to rioting in east Belfast
Saturday was the worst rioting to date. One of the critical reasons for that is it appears the police (PSNI) plan to guide loyalists back a certain route to east Belfast fell apart.
This caused the police to be stretched on the ground during the crucial moments when violence erupted.
It caused that violence to be more intense because it meant loyalists and nationalists got far too close to each other.
Piecing together photo and video evidence, reliable eye-witnesses, what I witnessed and what the police say, here is what seems to have happened.
The rally assembled at City Hall. The PSNI say 500. I’ve not spoken to anyone there who thinks that figure is remotely credible. British police forces traditionally under-estimate crowds and it’s widely agreed the figure was around 2000 or so.
It was peaceful, though you have to question why so many arrived already wearing masks. A prominent spokesman for the protest movement Willie Frazer attempted to address the crowd via a broken loudhailer. He said the march back to East Belfast should be peaceful, though to loud cheers he also said if people are attacked they have the right to defend themselves.
Correct in law – but arguably less than responsible given a large loyalist crowd was about to walk past a nationalist estate and this had caused a riot on at least the past two occasions when this happened.
They sang “God Save The Queen”, formed up, and headed east.
From here on things went down hill. Matters and indeed Belfast’s security are not helped because two of the city’s bridges have virtually the same name.
The PSNI plan was to block the direct route east over the Queen’s Bridge and this they did. It had been planned with stewards and rally organisers.
The idea was marchers go left/north at the Queen’s Bridge then right over the Queen Elizabeth II bridge.
I was at this route. PSNI landrovers were lined up along the northern flank of the nationalist Short Strand estate. Including ones designed to hoist high screens to prevent stones thrown from the nationalist estate reaching the marchers – and vice versa of course.
This route would take them some distance north of the Short Strand and they would only pass relatively close to one small northeast corner of it, before proceeding east up the Newtownards Road.
I saw loyalist stewards waiting there, including prominent UVF paramilitaries. They knew the plan and appeared happy with it.
Suddenly these men were yelling into their phones, as they did so the row of a dozen or so PSNI landrovers loaded up and left at speed heading south along the western flank of the Short Strand.
We filmed this. The police plan agreed with stewards appeared to be in tatters.
Back at the Queen’s Bridge PSNI roadblock, instead of heading left/north the vast bulk of marchers had suddenly routed right/south and headed for the Albert Bridge.
Both PSNI and marchers knew what would happen now. Once over Albert Bridge the loyalists would pass the south flank of the Short Strand where there are no high walls protecting the houses.
Our video shows police arriving at the last moment, redirecting traffic even as the union flags come over the hill from the Albert Bridge. It was clearly never supposed to have been like this.
Screens were not erected from the relatively few PSNI landrovers in place to buffer passing loyalists from the estate. It seems there simply wasn’t time.
A riot was now 100 per cent certain.
As soon as the marchers were within range the first stones, bottles and fireworks came in and went out. As on the two previous marches past the Short Strand, large contingents from both sides were keen to attack each other and were going to do so. That’s why worrying over who cast the first stone is irrelevant.
There was a large police presence inside the Short Strand estate. On the southern flanking Albertbridge road there was a full-scale riot.
All along here house windows were smashed by the loyalist mob. The nationalist mob too, out in force and tooled up with rocks, fireworks etc – one man has a baseball bat – all of it filmed.
The PSNI did regroup and quickly, sweeping loyalist rioters east, pushing nationalist rioters back north into the Short Strand estate.
Just east of the Short Strand where it meets Castlereagh Road area there’s another flashpoint of recent years. It’s in this area that the PSNI made a stand of it, controlling a violent mob of several hundred into the evening with water cannon and occasional advances on foot by officers.
So, the most serious riot yet unfolded – almost 30 police officers hurt.
Loyalist and nationalist mobs succeeded in getting far closer than planned.
The policing plan fell apart for a critical period creating the conditions for this confrontation to happen.
Equally, those responsible for marshaling the protest completely failed to produce the agreed route or stop violence.
That said, the PSNI regrouped fast and its officers acted with considerable restraint. Very few baton rounds fired. It is not how many foreign police forces would handle matters for all the loud complaints about police “brutality” you will hear here.
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