The leader of the Ulster Defence Association has warned that the union flag controversy at Belfast city hall is in danger of spiralling out of control and threatening peace across Northern Ireland. Jackie McDonald claimed that Protestant anger over the decision to stop flying the union flag all the year round on top of the City Hall was also undermining his position within Ulster loyalism.
McDonald said he was “gravely worried” that the leadership of loyalism “could be usurped” as a result of the flag furore. He was speaking outside Belfast City Hall as 1,500 loyalists gathered to protest over the council’s decision to end the policy of flying the union flag daily.
After the demonstration, which resulted in the closure of shops and a Christmas market, a riot broke out in east Belfast when loyalists returning from the protest clashed with police. One police officer was injured and taken to hospital.
The UDA leader denied that his organisation and the rival Ulster Volunteer Force were orchestrating much of the violence and intimidation. “The chief constable would say that, but the truth is this is a grassroots, spontaneous movement and no one knows where it is going,” he said.
“I have been advocating within loyalism that we keep dialogue open with republicans but after last week’s decision people like me are being shouted down inside the loyalist community. These politicians totally underestimated the reaction to taking down the union flag from the City Hall. When Sinn Fein councillor Jim McVeigh says, ‘Taking down this flag is another step towards a united Ireland’, there are a lot of people in my community who believe that. This is a very dangerous period and I don’t know where it is going to take us. I am very worried about this situation,” he said.
Assistant chief constable Will Kerr, of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said: “Loyalist paramilitary groups are now actively involved in orchestrating this disorder and we’ve seen that in various parts of the greater Belfast area over the course of the last couple of nights.”
He said members of both the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had been involved. Loyalist extremists have continued to target the cross-community Alliance Party whose compromise motion on Belfast city council led to the flying of the union flag on 17 designated days throughout the year.
The envoy between the Irish government and the UVF during the peace process has also warned that the flags dispute may be exploited by extremist anti-ceasefire elements in loyalism.
Chris Hudson, the Dublin-born trade unionist and now a Presbyterian minister, has been holding talks with the UVF aimed at defusing tensions.
Hudson said: “I don’t believe the militant anger on the street is a long-term strategy but it poses a serious danger in that it attracts violent and political sectarian people.”