US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has urged protesting loyalists to end street violence in the North amid fears of further trouble at demonstrations against a decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall.
A death threat against the east Belfast MP Naomi Long marked a serious escalation in tensions after arson attacks on offices used by her non-sectarian Alliance Party.
Even though Unionist Party leaders, including the the North’s First Minister Peter Robinson, called for a suspension of planned protests until the new year, security chiefs are gearing up for sporadic outbreaks of fresh violence, especially in the greater Belfast area.
Loyalists have targeted the Alliance Party after blaming them for backing the nationalist SDLP and Sinn Féin to push through a vote to limit the flying of the flag only to designated days.
Ms Clinton, who met with Mr Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Stormont Castle yesterday before returning to America at the end of a brief European tour, said the threat on Ms Long’s life was absolutely unacceptable.
Ms Clinton said: “There will always be disagreement in democratic societies, but violence is never an acceptable response to those disagreements. All parties need to confront the remaining challenge of sectarian divisions peacefully together.”
With loyalists threatening another protest in Belfast today — expected to be the busiest shopping day so far this year — Ms Clinton said: “People have strong feelings, but you must not use violence as a means of expressing those strong feelings.
“The only path forward is a peaceful, democratic one. There can be no place in the new Northern Ireland for any violence.
“The remnants of the past need to be quickly, unequivocally condemned. Democracy requires dialogue, compromise and constant commitment by everyone to protect the rights of everyone.”
Alliance Party offices in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim and Bangor, Co Down — where a councillor’s home was also damaged — have been attacked.
Apart from Belfast, there has been trouble as well in Carrickfergus and Ballymena, Co Antrim, and although not on the scale of the violence earlier this year in Belfast at the height of the so-called marching season, security chiefs fear there is the potential for it to become worse and more widespread.
There is no evidence of the trouble being orchestrated by paramilitaries.
Social networking sites are being used to gather crowds, but even though they have distanced themselves from the protests, condemned the threat on Ms Long’s life, and called for restraint, the two main Unionist parties have been accused by Sinn Féin and the SDLP of whipping up tensions and of lacking leadership.
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