DUBLIN – Leaders from across Northern Ireland appealed Tuesday for a week of angry, illegal Protestant street protests to end after a gang surrounded a policewoman's car and hurled a Molotov cocktail inside.
Police said the officer wasn't wounded because the car didn't catch on fire, but about 40 other police have been hurt during the past week of street clashes, driving away tourism and soiling Northern Ireland's image as a land at peace. Extremists from the British Protestant majority have turned out in force, blocking roads across Belfast and several suburbs ever since Belfast City Council voted Dec. 3 to stop flying the British flag year-round.
Road blockades in some Protestant parts of Belfast resumed Tuesday night, despite warnings from politicians and police chiefs that someone would be killed if the trouble continued.
The politician at the center of the storm, Alliance Party deputy leader Naomi Long, accused the protesters of seeking to impose "mob rule" on Northern Ireland, the part of the island that remained in the United Kingdom when the predominantly Catholic rest of Ireland won independence in 1922.
Death threats have forced Long, who represents Protestant east Belfast in British Parliament, to abandon her home and office. Protestant extremists blame her small cross-community party for providing the council votes needed to approve a Catholic-backed motion removing the British flag from Belfast City Hall for all but 18 days a year. The policewoman attacked Monday night was guarding Long's unoccupied office.
Long said the police "are not there to protect me, or protect the Alliance Party. They are to protect Northern Ireland from slipping back into the abyss of terrorism. They are there holding the line between mob rule and the rule of law."
She said the often masked, hooded street protesters were guilty of Nazi-style thuggery that "is not compatible with British identity. People fought under that flag not for a piece of material. They fought for principles, like democracy and the rule of law. They fought against fascism, and what we have seen on the streets of Belfast over the last seven days has been nothing short of fascism."
And Britain's minister responsible for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, told lawmakers in London there was "nothing remotely British about what they (the Protestant protesters) are doing. They are dishonoring and shaming the flag of our country with their lawless and violent activities. They discredit the cause they claim to support."
But underpinning this month's protests has been the Protestant community's centuries-old belief that they must stand their ground — expressed with such favored slogans as "Not an inch" and "No surrender" — versus an ever-growing, ever-demanding Irish minority.
Such anxieties were increased Tuesday when Northern Ireland's latest census results confirmed that the Catholic community keeps growing while the Protestant side is actually shrinking in number, putting Northern Ireland on course for the traditional majority to become the minority.
The census, conducted last year, found that the Irish Catholic side of the community now exceeds 45 percent of the population, while the Protestant side had slid 5 points over the previous decade to just 48 percent. When Northern Ireland was founded in 1921, its creators drew the border specifically to create a state with a solid two-thirds Protestant majority, but a higher Catholic birth rate and greater Protestant emigration rates have gradually narrowed that gap to today's nearly even split.
And the council vote in Belfast, once solidly Protestant but today majority Catholic, reflects this demographic change, with 24 from the Catholic camp versus 21 from the Protestant; the cross-community Alliance, with a moderate mix, holds the balance of power.
The street clashes also have revealed the continuing role of illegal paramilitary groups in fomenting unrest at odds with their public peace commitments.
Protestant politicians and the police commander, Chief Constable Matt Baggott, say senior members of the two major anti-Catholic gangs, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, have played a leading role in the past week's attacks on Alliance Party properties and police.
The UVF officially renounced violence and disarmed in 2009, and the UDA followed suit in 2010, but both continue to operate criminal rackets and exert paramilitary muscle within their working-class Protestant turf. The two groups together killed more than 900 people, mostly Catholic civilians, from the early 1970s to a jointly called cease-fire in 1994.
Alliance Party, http://allianceparty.org/
Northern Ireland census statistics, http://bit.ly/UzdVsH