Violence wanes in N. Ireland after days of fighting

60 police hurt in rioting

Protestant group accused of violating '94 cease-fire

September 15, 2005|By Tom Hundley | Tom Hundley,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LONDON - After four nights of gunfire and Molotov cocktails, the latest outbreak of Protestant violence in Belfast's streets appears to be waning, but yesterday the British government formally declared the Ulster Volunteer Force, the paramilitary group behind the violence, to be in violation of its 1994 cease-fire agreement.

"What I've done in this decision overnight is to send an absolutely crystal clear signal to everybody that we will not tolerate violence," said Peter Hain, the government's Northern Ireland secretary.

The meaning of the government's action is largely symbolic, but it could further antagonize the UVF and several other heavily armed Protestant paramilitary groups that have been feuding with one another for months.

The order comes at a delicate time in the stalled Northern Ireland peace process. The Irish Republican Army, which declared in July that its armed struggle was over, is expected to announce a major decommissioning of its weapons within days.

As a result, the British army is scaling back its presence in Northern Ireland, and the province's Protestant majority, which wants British rule there to continue, is worried.

At least 60 police have been injured in the rioting that began Saturday afternoon and continued the next three evenings before subsiding Tuesday. Protestant men and boys blocked roads, hijacked cars, set hundreds of vehicles on fire and vandalized shops and homes across a wide swath of Belfast.

They attacked the mostly Protestant police force with automatic weapons and gasoline bombs and other homemade weapons. The police and army fought back with plastic bullets.

The police have arrested 63 rioters thus far. Yesterday evening, Protestant demonstrators were again blocking rush hour traffic. There also were reports of attacks on police, but not on the scale of the earlier nights.

Chief Constable Hugh Orde described the weekend violence as the "worst ever faced by a [police] force in the UK" and said it was fortunate that no police were killed.

"Petrol bombs don't appear by accident, blast bombs don't appear by accident, and certainly firearms have to be planned to be produced in the way they were produced," Orde said.

The violence was triggered by a seemingly innocuous decision to reroute a parade by the Orange Order, a militant Protestant fraternal organization, to avoid a Catholic neighborhood.

Orde said that although the UVF was responsible for the orchestrated attacks on police, the Orange Order had instigated the rioting. He backed the allegation with video footage showing men in their easily recognizable orange sashes participating in the violence.

Yesterday, the Orange Order's grand master, Robert Saulters, said at a news conference that his organization was blameless and that the violence was a "cry of desperation" from the Protestant community.

The underlying cause appears to be growing resentment by working-class Protestant "loyalists" or "unionists" who sense that Catholic "republicans" or "nationalists" have gotten a better deal from the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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