SEVERAL hundred people have gathered at Belfast City Hall for a Union flag protest.
The peaceful rally started at 1pm to protest over the council’s decision to only fly the Union flag on designated days.
Many are carrying Union flags others have them draped over their shoulders while some hoist the flag over their heads.
Some protestors are carrying banners hitting out at their politicians and the police.
One said: “END POLICE BRUTALITY IN EAST BELFAST”.
Another was directly aimed at the politicians: “WE HAVE HAVE CONFIDENCE IN UR FORUM”.
This is a direct reference to the Unionist Forum which held its first meeting on Thursday at Stormont.
It was organised by DUP leader Peter Robinson and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt.
Politicians, churchmen, community workers and several leading UDA figures including Jackie McDonald and his east Belfast brigadier Jimmy Birch.
Following the meeting, it was announced that a Task Force had been set up along with eight working groups to engage with grassroot unionists and loyalists over problems in their areas.
At Musgrave Street PSNI, police vehicles fitted with side curtains have parked up ready for the return leg of some protestors into east Belfast.
The curtain vans are expected to be strategically placed around the nationalist Short Strand district to screen off the marchers.
Those walking back from the City Hall into east Belfast will link arms.
Jamie Bryson of the Ulster People’s Forum has called on police to give the marchers adequate protection.
Last Wednesday night, marchers chanting sectarian songs were attacked with bottles and golf balls by up to 70 nationalist youths from the Short Strand.
While he was being interviewed for television, Jamie Bryson was struck on the head with a missile.
Saturday’s Union flag protest comes after another night of shame for Northern Ireland when rioting erupted.
Four PSNI officers were injured as police collegues came under attack with petrol bombs after a number of Union flag protests on Friday evening.
Police fired in total five plastic baton rounds and loyalist rioters hurled 33 petrol bombs at PSNI lines.
Two arrests were made.
One injured police officer needed hospital treatment. Over 70 officers have now been injured since the start of street disorder.
A protest in Carrickfergus turned ugly with running battles between some protestors and police in West Street.
Police moved resources into the area to quell the trouble and deployed two water cannon.
Loyalists claim police have responded with baton rounds.
“Their response was way over the top. Talk about heavy handed tactics,” said a loyalist.
However, this is disputed by police who said officers dealt with a “serious public order” situation.
A 500-strong crowd had gathered in east Belfast but it remained peaceful and protestors moved off the road.
The loyalist source added: “These were co-ordinated attacks to spread the PSNI resources as thinly as possible across as many areas as possible.”
A number of roads across the greater Belfast area were closed because of protests.
The O’Neills Road roundabout at Cloughfern, Newtownabbey was closed due an outbreak of rioting following a protest.
One police officer was injured during the trouble at Cloughfern.
It was estimated a crowd of around 300 were involved in attacking police.
A police land rover was hit by petrol bomb
A security source: “It was heavy going. Officers were being attacked a continuous shower of petrol bombs.”
A bus was also hijacked and set on fire in the area.
Police said officers came under attack with petrol bombs, bricks and fireworks.
The PSNI deployed water cannon into the area to disperse rioters.
Translink withdrew all Metro services in Belfast except the NO 10 to west Belfast.
It was also being reported that a GP, on his way to visit a sick cancer patient, was twice turned away by protestors.
Earlier on Friday evening, it was a battle for the hearts and minds of the public on Friday evening.
‘Operation Standstill’ – the organised province-wide protest against the decision to only fly the Union flag at Belfast City Hall on designated days got underway at 6pm.
And for the first time, those opposed to the Union flag protests launched their own rallying call on social network sites: ‘Operation Sit-In’.
It was organised to support the hard-pressed pub, restaurants and shops in Belfast City Centre who watched £15 million out the city’s economy since the protests started after the council’s decision on December 3.
At one point, the idea had received more than 12,000 retweets on Twitter as people were urged to vote with their feet and go out and support licensed premises instead of sitting in in buses and cars in gridlock travel.
Horatio Todd’s in east Belfast has come up with a ‘Operation Sit-In’ cocktail to mark the occasion.