Loyalists armed with handguns and rifles took up sniper positions on rooftops and fired dozens of bullets at police while rampaging mobs hijacked cars and threw petrol and blast bombs.
The violence began on Saturday afternoon within about an hour of the re-routing of an Orange march away from the main Shankill/Falls peaceline after the Order ended dialogue with nationalist residents without agreement.
Ignoring a Parades Commission ruling, it split up into several sections with a number of parades heading off in different directions. Orangemen clashed with police, brandishing ceremonial sabres and pikes at them.
Both the UDA and UVF — supposedly on ceasefire — were involved in the clashes in Belfast, Banbridge, Derry, Larne, Carrickfergus, Newtownabbey and other loyalist towns and villages.
The chief constable, Sir Hugh Orde, said the violence was well-planned and orchestrated by both the main loyalist paramilitary groups. He blamed, however, the Orange Order for what he said was an effective “call to arms” on the eve of the march.
“Petrol bombs don’t appear by accident, blast bombs do not appear by accident and certainly firearms have to be planned to be produced in the way they were produced,” Orde said. The police chief said he had witnessed Orangemen taking off their sashes and attacking police or standing close to masked men, including known paramilitaries, who were coordinating or taking part in throwing missile at police.
Orde said “There was a call by the Orange Order for their supporters to come out and support the march, which had been banned from a certain route.”
In a late development yesterday, the North Belfast UDA said that “those who have been involved in the ongoing hostilities to call a halt to their activities.”
The statement added: “We call for calm, no matter what the provocation. We are instructing our own membership to avoid any confrontation on the streets and to steer away from any acts of violence.”
Thousands of people were involved in the violence, hijacking dozens of cars and setting them on fire. The youngest victim was 21-month-old Caleb Moore who suffered a broken skull and slashed face when attackers smashed his father’s car windows in North Belfast.
Catholic homes and property were attacked in Belfast and Ballymena, with Sinn Fein claiming loyalists were intent on dragging the IRA back into a violent response.
The most seriously hurt person was a 29-year-old Catholic man, critically injured in the hours before the disputed Orange parade. He remains seriously ill in hospital after a savage beating by 10 men near the Short Strand area of east Belfast.
In Ballymena, Sunday Mass was moved to another church after serious rioting in the Harryville area, scene of many recent loyalist sectarian graffiti and paint bombs attacks.
Parish priest Fr. Paul Symonds said he felt it was for the best in case Mass-goers’ cars were hijacked or people subjected to attack as they made their way to church. “It is better to be safe than sorry,” he said.
On Monday, loyalists pretending to be police officers called shops and offices in Belfast city center advising them to close early. Loyalists them blocked many main roads, preventing commuters traveling home.
In the loyalist Highfield estate, loyalists had laid an ambush for police and, once lured into the area, began pelting them with any missile they could get their hands on.
Before long, burst of what sounded like automatic gunfire rang out, repeatedly, interspersed with the thud of innumerable blast bombs. Using state-of-art camera surveillance, police knew when to take cover and there were relatively few injuries.
One civilian was shot in the neck, although he walked to a waiting ambulance. Another civilian is seriously ill with blast bomb injuries, thought to be self-inflicted.
The streets of loyalist areas of north and west Belfast soon became the scenes of running battles between mobs of youths and police which spread, after dark, to the east and south of the city.
The police were stretched to capacity to contain the rioting, unable to make arrests as they were coming under gunfire by snipers using the crowds as cover. Older loyalists used mobile phones to give orders to younger men by text message.
At the end of two days of the fiercest rioting seen in Northern Ireland for many years, the police said a total of 2000 officers and British soldiers had been deployed.
Over 50 officers had been injured with an unknown number of petrol, blast and pipe bombs thrown. Over fifty police officers were injured, one seriously. The police uncovered seven firearms and a bomb factory in the loyalist Highfield estate.
They fired over 500 plastic bullets and five live rounds while the British army fired at least one live round. Water cannon were used to try and quell the violence.
Police released video footage of Orangemen attacking police. Youths used garden ladders to scale roofs and attack police. In East Belfast, they used a digger and smashed traffic lights and liquor stores before looting the contents.
They also used heavy equipment to rob a bank cash machine. In North Down, armed loyalists held up a coach bringing elderly people back from a gospel meeting and robbed them of cash and mobile phones at gunpoint before setting the coach alight to block the road.