THE UVF “orchestrated” the most serious street violence seen in east Belfast in years and was guilty of “attempted murder” of PSNI officers.
Chief Supt Alan McCrum said the loyalist paramilitary group, which is supposed to be on ceasefire, was behind the violence and shootings which scarred the area around the Catholic enclave of Short Strand early yesterday.
Homes were attacked and damaged in the trouble which broke out at a sectarian interface in the Newtownards Road area at about 9pm on Monday.
The trouble escalated to the point where up to 500 people were involved in the violence which lasted until well after midnight. Two men were shot and injured and were yesterday receiving hospital treatment. Eleven shots in total were fired.
Chief Supt McCrum said the violence started when loyalists from nearby areas moved in on the Short Strand area.
“That precipitated a response from the community in the Short Strand, and then we were left with two communities who, for the next four hours, were seeking to involve themselves in conflict across what was, and continues to be, a very challenging interface in the city.” The PSNI was “satisfied that at the very least members of east Belfast UVF were involved in organising the disorder”.
“We had additional resources in the Short Strand on Monday night, but no one could have anticipated the scale of the disorder that took place,” Chief Supt McCrum said.
“No one could have anticipated that hundreds of people would be on the street and that petrol bombs, blast bombs, sticks and bottles would be thrown over four to five hours.”
Minister for Justice and Alliance leader David Ford said the violent scenes were a “disgrace”.
The Rev Mervyn Gibson, a senior Presbyterian minister and Orangeman, said tension had been building over many months.
He said Protestants and Catholics did not get involved in violence without a “context”.
Rumours are continuing to circulate that the trouble followed growing unease within loyalist communities in east Belfast.
Reports centre on investigations mounted by the Historical Enquiries Team, a specialist unit which is separate from the PSNI but reports to the chief constable on unsolved murders from the Troubles.
Local people fear rumours that a supergrass has been identified.
There are also fears linked to investigations by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency and to moves to deal with contentious loyal orders parades in the coming marching season.
Progressive Unionist member Jim Wilson said: “Loyalism feels outside the [peace] process because we have been pushed outside the process.
“Nobody is trying to bring us in. We were part and parcel of what’s happening up at Stormont but it’s still a cold house for loyalism.”
Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey, an Assembly member who sits on the policing board, said: “The activities of the UVF in east Belfast have been giving people cause for concern for some time. These have been well documented in the media by a variety of commentators. There has been a marked increase in UVF flag-flying, the painting of new paramilitary murals and significant agitation around loyal order parades. This has caused deep unease within both communities in east Belfast.”
He said the PSNI could have responded better to the trouble when it erupted.
“Let us act now to make sure UVF actions are not allowed to set the agenda for the summer months in the city of Belfast.”