DUBLIN (AP) — A Protestant mob stormed into the grounds of Belfast City Hall and clashed with police Monday night after the council voted to remove the British flag from the building for most of the year.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland said five of their officers and two security guards were injured during the hour-long melee outside city hall. The violence spilled into predominantly Protestant east Belfast, where passing Protestant crowds threw bricks and bottles at a Catholic church and hijacked a bus.
Also injured outside the city hall was an Associated Press photographer who described being clubbed by at least one policeman as he found himself trapped between baton-swinging officers and the Protestant crowd near the rear iron gates. He suffered a head wound and a broken right pointer finger that is expected to require plastic surgery.
"A club came down on my hand as I was taking pictures and caught my finger really bad. It was right on the camera trigger. There's blood all over my camera," photographer Peter Morrison said in an interview from his bed at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital.
"The police appeared to be panicked and thought they were going to be overrun by the crowd. They were shouting and screaming at the crowd to get back in the street," said Morrison, a Belfast native who has covered many Northern Ireland riots for the past two decades.
He said a police club also gashed his head, requiring stitches. He never lost consciousness.
More than 1,000 Protestants had rallied outside as council members voted 29-21 to remove the Union Jack from the building for all but 17 designated days each year. The British flag has flown continuously from the city hall's dome for more than a century.
Some in the crowd smashed through the locked rear gates, vandalized staff cars and fought with police. Many concealed their faces with hats, hoods and scarves to make it hard to identify them through photographs or TV footage. Some tossed fireworks and smoke bombs at police lines, and a few climbed on top of police armored cars in the street outside and planted British flags on top of the vehicles.
The scene underscored deep-seated divisions that persist in the British territory despite its broadly successful peace process. That two-decade effort has largely ended politically motivated killings and forged a stable coalition government of British Protestants and Irish Catholics — but done little to unite society at grass-roots level.
Many parts of Belfast remain divided into British and Irish districts demarcated by high walls called "peace lines" and rival displays of flags. The British side's curb stones often are painted the red, white and blue of the Union Jack, while Catholics adorn theirs with the green, white and orange of the Irish Republic.
Belfast once had a Protestant majority, but a growing Catholic community means today's council has 24 from the Irish nationalist side and just 21 from the British unionist side. The balance of power is wielded by six councilors from Northern Ireland's only cross-community party, Alliance.
Intercommunal tension had been growing since Catholic council members last month proposed a motion to remove the British flag completely from the dome of the 106-year-old building. It sits at the front of Royal Avenue, the major shopping boulevard in central Belfast, and is decorated elaborately with Christmas lights.
But the Alliance party proposed Monday that the flag still should fly on official holidays and other specified days. That measure already has been adopted on other government buildings, notably the headquarters of Northern Ireland's regional government in east Belfast. Catholics voted for that compromise, but the Protestants opposed it as an assault on their community's identity and Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom.
Tempers flared during the debate preceding the vote, with both sides accusing the other of provocation likely to spark violence outside.
"This is a very hot issue. Flags cut to the core of people's identity and their belief system," said Christopher Stalford, a Belfast councilman from the major Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists. He contended that most Catholics wanted the British flag to stay atop city hall.
Gerry Kelly from the main Catholic-backed party, Sinn Fein, dismissed that as fantasy. He accused the Protestant side of seeking confrontation and the police of mounting an incompetent security operation.
Kelly said the Protestant crowd "indiscriminately attacked cars. We are very, very lucky that they didn't get into the building or we could have been dealing with a lot more injuries."