Two hundred people were involved in the violence on Sunday night, which was sparked by unexpected football results in Scotland, which handing Rangers the top place in the Scottish Premier League instead of Celtic, as had been expected.
Violence erupted on the streets as Catholic and Protestant youths exchanged insults at a cross-community interface, quickly followed by full-scale rioting as rocks and bottles were thrown.
The rioting lasted about three hours, with the police bringing in two water cannons to control the crowds. A total of 18 police officers were treated for injuries. One female officer was partially dragged from a vehicle and a bottle smashed over her head.
A member of Ian Paisley’s DUP demanded that close circuit television film be used to prosecute the perpetrators. Nigel Dodds, the MP for North Belfast, accused Catholic youths of attacking Protestant homes.
Sinn Fein’s Margaret McLenaghan, while condemning all the violence, said the police had been “heavy handed” and had not acted to protect nationalist homes from loyalist attacks.
Superintendent Gary White, operations manager for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in north Belfast, said they would “use all available means to identify those responsible.”
There were clashes at other sectarian flashpoint areas of north Belfast on the Limestone and Whitewell Roads. No officers were injured in those disturbances.
Northern Ireland security minister, Shaun Woodward, said “Public disorder of this kind involving young people, many of whom were drunk, cannot be tolerated” and praised police action and the calming influence of local politicians across the divide.
The violence came within hours of a series of loyalist petrol and paint bomb attacks on Catholic families across north Belfast that were condemned by SDLP councilor Pat Convery.
“These sectarian attacks are ominous as we head into the marching season”, he said. “They were widespread and clearly planned and concerted to stoke up tension”.
Convery said many organizations and community leaders were working to build up trust and ensure a trouble-free summer.
“It is bitterly disappointing that there are people working just as hard on an agenda of strife and bigotry,” he said.
In County Antrim, a man was brought to court accused of attempting to intimidate a Catholic neighbor from her home. The charge relates to an attack in the early hours of Sunday in the mainly Protestant village of Ahoghill.
Stephen John McDowell, who is 30, is charged with trying to cause Kathleen McCaughey, a Catholic, to leave her home using threats or menaces. A detective told the court the defendant had replied “definitely not guilty” when she had put the charge to him, but believed he would be connected to the attack.
This news comes on the heels of official police figures released this week that show that although the overall number of reported crimes are down by nearly eight percent, “hate crimes” against ethnic minorities and gay people are up nearly 80 percent.
Such attacks are concentrated in parts of Belfast, particularly the south of the city, Ballymena, Dungannon and Craigavon. Sinn Fein’s assemblyman in South Belfast, Alex Maskey, said decisive action was required.
“The figures demonstrate what those of us working on the ground have been experiencing over the past year”, he said. “Race hate crime is now a major issue. A clear message must be sent out by politicians and communities that there is no tolerance for it”.
He said some of the attacks were the work of loyalists, but overall there should not be complacency anywhere.
“This problem can be effectively addressed if the necessary political and community will is displayed. We have a duty to those ethnic minority communities to rally to their side”.
The chief constable of the PSNI, Hugh Orde, said that crime had reduced overall by nearly eighteen percent over the past two years. Domestic burglary, he said, was down 18.4 percent and non-domestic burglary down by 18.5 percent.
Other headline figures show that clearance rates were up nearly a percent, now at 28.2 per cent. There was a slight decrease in the number of violent crimes and an overall decrease in robbery. Offences against the state showed a decrease of eight percent, down to 107.
Meanwhile, the public inquiry into the murder of Portadown man Robert Hamill, who was killed in a sectarian attack eight years ago, has begun with a call from his family for people to come forward to give evidence.
The Catholic father of two (his partner was pregnant with their third child), was 25-years-old when he was kicked to death by a loyalist mob on April 27, 1997. The killers could be heard shouting “Die Fenian, die” as they kicked him.
The failure of a nearby RUC patrol to intervene during the attack, along with the handling of the RUC investigation, led to allegations of collusion. Diana Hamill said they hoped the inquiry would succeed in getting to the truth, but were also “nervous about it”.
Meanwhile, after another alleged threat against the family of murdered Belfast man, Robert McCartney, a senior Sinn Fein representative said he did not believe it came from republicans.
McCartney was murdered on January 30th after he left a city center bar. Three IRA men were expelled from the organization and 12 Sinn Fein members suspended amidst claims republicans were intimidating witnesses.
Sinn Fein chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, said he took a poor view of anyone threatening McCartney’s sisters or fianc