Video: Belfast Lord Mayor treated in hospital after being mobbed by loyalists
Nine police officers injured during protest in north Belfast
Published 06/08/2013 | 15:00
Belfast's Lord Mayor has been forced to flee an official engagement after being mobbed by loyalists.
Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir, 53, required a police escort to evade angry protesters at the re-opening of a park in the staunchly unionist Woodvale area in the north of the city.
The high-profile businessman and city councillor claimed he was kicked and punched during the altercation. Police said nine of their officers were injured during the incident, although none required hospital treatment.
Mr O Muilleoir did go to hospital after the incident, where he was treated for bruising and given pain relief medication, but later resumed his official duties.
Community tensions are high in Woodvale after a summer that has already seen serious loyalist rioting over a decision to prevent Orangemen parading past the nearby nationalist Ardoyne area. Loyalists have accused Sinn Fein of waging a cultural war against their community.
Mr O Muilleoir accused the protesters of "hijacking" a community event, insisting they were a "small minority" that did not represent the people in the Woodvale/Shankill area.
"When the lord mayor gets invites there must be no 'no go' areas in Belfast," he said.
"I want to be mayor for all the people.
"We just have to keep going building a peace and not be dragged back. I do not think what happened is representative of the people of the Shankill.
"My message for the people who kicked and punched me is: I will not be giving in to violence, or giving in to yesterday's men."
The mayor added: "When I became mayor I promised a year of firsts, I didn't realise I would be the first first citizen to be assaulted."
Mr O Muilleoir was heckled as he arrived at the event, which was subsequently cut short. The main trouble flared as he left the venue.
Warning: Video may contain obscene language
While rioting subsided in Woodvale after five days of disorder in mid-July, Orangemen and their supporters continue to hold protests over the ruling by the Parades Commission adjudication body to prevent the march past the Ardoyne.
While the majority of the trouble was on the loyalist side of the interface, at the height of the unrest in July a blast bomb was thrown at police from the Ardoyne, while officers are investigating reports that shots were fired at one of their patrol vehicles from the area last night.
Republicans have rioted in the Ardoyne in previous summers when the Orange march was allowed to proceed past the area at the conclusion of traditional Twelfth of July commemorations.
Mr O Muilleoir, a councillor for the Balmoral ward in south Belfast, had been attending the event in his capacity as first citizen. He had earlier been at the reopening of another park in the nationalist Falls Road area.
Both were redeveloped as a result of £4 million funding boost.
Democratic Unionist Social Development minister Nelson McCausland and DUP city councillor and former lord mayor Gavin Robinson attended both events.
Over recent years both unionist and nationalist mayors have increasingly attended engagements on both sides of the city's religious divide - something they were less able to do during the Troubles.
Police said the injured officers sustained cuts and bruising in what they described as "violent scuffles".
They said missiles were also thrown at Mr O'Muilleoir and their officers, with damage caused to the mayor's official car.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) commander in North Belfast, chief inspector Andy Freeburn, condemned those who engaged in violence.
"The PSNI will be investigating this appalling incident with a view to identifying those responsible," he said.
"This should have been a positive day about the opening of a children's play park in the area, but instead was marred by disorder which has left a number of our community officers injured."
Loyalists across Belfast and in other parts of Northern Ireland claim their culture is being eroded, with symbols and traditions associated with their tradition under attack in perceived sops to republicanism.
Violence broke out across the city at the turn of the year when Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days the Union flag flies over the building.
While the intensity of those protests had subsided by the end of winter, unrest erupted again during the summer's traditional marching season, with loyalist anger focused on the determination by the Parades Commission to prevent, for the first time, Orange lodges passing the Ardoyne on July 12.
Community tensions have recently spread to the Co Tyrone town of Castlederg where a Sinn Fein-backed parade commemorating dead IRA members is due to take place on Sunday.The plan has drawn an angry response from some victims of IRA violence, who intend to protest at the event.
In another development, last week DUP city councillor and former deputy lord mayor Ruth Patterson, 57, was charged by police with sending offensive messages on Facebook in relation to a posting in response to a fictional account of a loyalist gun and bomb attack on those taking part in the Castlederg parade, including senior Sinn Fein members.
Stormont's Justice Minister David Ford has also condemned the latest incident at Woodvale.
"As Lord Mayor of Belfast, Mairtin was carrying out his civic duty on behalf of all the citizens of the city at what was supposed to be a very positive event for the Woodvale area," he said.
"The event, which would have marked the official opening of the park, after significant investment, had to be abandoned and unfortunately it is now making the news for all the wrong reasons.
"I understand that nine police officers were also injured in what were disgusting scenes by a large unruly crowd. Police officers were punched, kicked and knocked to the ground as they policed a community event. I do hope they make a full recovery soon. The police will be investigating this incident with a view to identifying those responsible and bringing them before the courts.
"I have spoken to Mairtin to pass on my best wishes to him following the horrible scenes he faced today. Mairtin joined me in expressing concern at how the police also came under attack.
"Anyone going about their civic duty should be free to do so free from harassment, violence and intimidation. Such violence against elected representatives and the police must be condemned."