EXCLUSIVE: PSNI chiefs have cancelled all leave on Friday as it braces itself for a weekend of further possible public disorder.
All available resources are to be mobilised as police intelligence warns of a large protest rally at Belfast City Hall.
It follows serious public disorder in east Belfast on Thursday night which police chiefs believe was orchestrated by the UVF.
The disorder broke out in the wake of another protest over the issue of the flying of the Union flag being restricted to designated days at Belfast City Hall.
Belfast Daily understands that in response to fresh intelligence on protests and further public disorder, all available uniform police have had their leave cancelled and brought back work to support the hard-pressed Tactical Support Groups which have faced the brunt of loyalist anger over the past month.
Security sources have told Belfast Daily that the police bill for policing protests and resulting street trouble has already passed the £10 million mark.
“It is becoming a huge drain on the PSNI budget. If this carries on, the Chief Constable is going to have go and ask for more money otherwise public safety will be put at risk.”
At one point, intelligence warned that officers faced possible gun attack in the area.
The security source added: “We had intelligence that said if officers deployed baton rounds then they would be attack with ‘lead rounds’. It was a very serious situation.”
Following Thursday night’s trouble, Assistant Chief Constable for Belfast George Hamilton condemned the violence saying it was “planned and orchestrated”.
However, he stopped short of blaming the leadership of the Ulster Volunteer Force of orchestrating the violence.
“Ten officers were injured, who were out trying to facilitate a protest – that protest was not peaceful, it was not lawful – it’s to be condemned,” said ACC Hamilton.
“It’s fair to say that the disorder was initiated by the protestors against the nationalist community of the Short Strand and the police, as often happens in this jurisdiction, were caught in the middle.
“There was also responding disorder from that community.”
Petrol bombs and other missiles were thrown in the vicinity of the Albertbridge Road, Castlereagh Street, Beersbridge Road and Mountpottinger Street areas.
Cars were also set alight and used as burning barricades at both Templemore Avenue and Castlereagh Street.
On Friday morning, a 23-year-old man appeared at Belfast Magistrates Court charged with rioting after the PSNI accused him of throwing bricks at police on Thursday night in east Belfast.
Christopher Shires, from Beechfield Street, Belfast, is charged with riotous assembly.
Shires claimed he only went to the scene for a peaceful protest.
His solicitor told the court that other people had hijacked a lawful demonstration.
But a detective constable opposed bail.
“It’s our understanding that more protests are in the pipeline,” he said.
“The defendant was observed by police throwing bricks at police vehicles and police officers. He was identified, pursued and arrested.”
District Judge Fiona Bagnall refused bail, but rejected suggestions that the accused could be kept out of the area and placed under curfew.
Shires was remanded in custody to appear again via video link next month.
A 16-year-old boy was also arrested and will appear before a youth court later this month.
ACC Hamilton revealed further details of the trouble which erupted following a flag protest in east Belfast.
“When the disorder erupted, within a few moments, a wheelie bin was brought out onto the road and emptied of rubble – rubble that had clearly been broken up and that was used as missiles against police.”
Police also seized a crate of glass bottles.
ACC Hamilton added that, while individual paramilitary members were thought to be involved, senior leaders were not believed to be responsible for organising either violence or protests.
Police also warned that while “tolerance of a degree of disruption” had been shown in relation to facilitating peaceful demonstrations, unlawful protests would have consequences.
“There comes a point when it is no longer acceptable, when it’s having an adverse effect on the wider community – in terms of economic wellbeing, in terms of people being able to go about their own business and get to work, get to hospital, and all of that,” ACC Hamilton said.
“Each of these protests is considered on a case-by-case basis, but there is a very clear over-arching strategy which empowers our officers to make assessments and, where necessary, to use force to clear roads.
“And we’re going to be doing that more and more.”
Peaceful protests the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall have continued since the start of December, but serious violence has erupted a number of times.
A total of 65 police officers have been injured during that time.
Among the most serious incidents were the attempted murders of two officers in a patrol car which was petrol-bombed, and attacks and death threats against elected politicians.
Police Federation chairman Terry Spence, has called for an immediate end to the violence and harsh jail sentences for anyone involved.
He said Thursday night’s protest may have started peacefully, but that it “quickly degenerated”.
“It was sustained, serious public disorder. We had members of the UVF who were engaged in attacks on police … Stashes of petrol bombs were produced and wheelie bins of masonry …
“There’s absolutely no doubt this violence was orchestrated by the UVF.”
Mr Spence added that, given the pressure being put on police, the situation simply cannot go on.
“I would appeal to right-thinking people to stay away from these protests – it’s very obvious that they have long since run their course,” he said.