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Protestant militants in Northern Ireland attack middle-ground party; offices, home damaged

Northern Ireland leaders and police commanders 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 comes 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.

Protestant hard-liners have responded violently to a vote Monday in Belfast City Council to reduce sharply the flying of the British flag atop the city hall. Alliance, the only party trying actively to represent the middle ground between the two camps, holds the balance of power on the council and voted with the Catholic side to take down the flag except for 18 official days annually.

Several hundred 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 continue to fly year-round 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 attack and forced them to flee before they could light a fire.

Also in Bangor, a couple who are both Alliance council members had their front window smashed early Thursday, and said they were now 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 said she was now afraid to sleep in their home, and 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.

Justice Minister David Ford, who is also the Alliance leader, appealed for Northern Ireland's legislature to be reconvened Thursday to debate how to defend democracy from extremism. Ironically the building where Northern Ireland's lawmakers meet, the Stormont Parliamentary Building, already has greatly reduced its flying of the British flag without any violence.

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.

Baggott said the militants were using their extreme sense of British nationalism as an excuse to compromise democracy, to use mob rule and violence as a way of asserting people's will and compromising the rule of law. He called it "an outrage to have democratic parties intimidated and burned out simply because they took a democratic decision."

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," with the Protestant side coloring its curb stones the red, white and blue of the Union Jack, while the Catholic side dons 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 web site avoids the British "co.uk" or Irish "ie" in favor of the neutral "org."

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Alliance Party, http://allianceparty.org/