Parts of Belfast resembled a war zone after the nightly rioting, in which hundreds of loyalists attacked the police, and on occasion their Catholic neighbors, in rampages of violence.
The week of rioting brought mayhem to the city and surrounding towns, including Carrickfergus, Ballymena, Banbridge, Antrim and parts of Lisburn. North and West Belfast, however, was the worst hit.
Using the cover of attacks on the police, loyalists also attacked Catholic homes and property, mostly in County Antrim. Some empty homes in the village of Ahoghill, vacated by Catholic families under threat, were even attacked again.
Nationalists and many unionists fumed as three-hour delays were caused nightly as workers tried to return home. On two occasions, loyalists purporting to be police officers phoned businesses and “advised” them to close early.
Some also phoned schools pretending to be transport workers and advised them that there would be no buses to take children home. A 13-year-old Catholic girl was hit by a brick as she went home to North Belfast from St. Dominic’s College on the Falls Road.
After dark, scores of cars were hijacked and set on fire on main roads like the Crumlin and West Circular that link North and West Belfast. Rocks and bottles rained down on motorists using the Westlink that connects the two main motorways.
By mid-week, police said they had made 63 arrests of whom 60 were arrested for public order offences. Three people had been arrested in connection with serious terrorist offences.
The assistant chief constable in charge of policing in Belfast, Duncan McCausland, said the police would deal robustly with those behind the violence. “Those with influence in these communities must step forward and exercise that influence to ensure these areas do not suffer further. People causing the disturbances are hurting their own communities,” he said.
In one incident, a pregnant woman who was experiencing trouble turning her car at a blocked street was by punched in the face by a loyalist. The SDLP assembly member for Lagan Valley, Patricia Lewsley, said the police “must ensure the safety of the public on the roads”. There was no justification, she said, “for this kind of violence.”
“The harrowing and dangerous ordeal that this woman was forced to go through is something that no one should have to experience. The police should protect the community and themselves by nipping these protests in the bud,” she said.
The Orange Order, which declined to comment until the fifth day of the violence, denied any responsibility. Its grand master, Robert Saulters, said only that its members had “defended themselves.”
In a press conference that was widely regarded as a PR disaster, its grand master in Belfast, Dawson Bailie, repeatedly said he “condoned” violence instead of “condemning” it.
He told the amazed press corps present that he didn’t accept “any responsibility for calling people out on the streets to assist us. I feel entirely blameless.” Asked if he would do things differently if he had the weekend over again he said: “Not one thing.”
The UDA issued two statements during the week, clearly implying it had been involved in orchestrating the violence throughout. In the first, a statement from the organization in North Belfast called on rioters to call a halt.
“We are instructing our own membership to avoid any confrontation on the streets and to steer away from any acts of violence. We call on politicians to use any influence to give direction to the community instead of hanging back and waiting on others to take the initiative,” he said.
In the second, the UDA said: “We can also relate to the underlying issues that have brought the loyalist community on to the streets to protest. We too cannot stand idly by and allow injustice and inequality to run rife through our community.
“We support the setting up of the Loyalist Women’s Network and would encourage them in their endeavors to highlight and lobby in a peaceful and non-violent way against the inequality and injustice for Protestants living in Northern Ireland.
It added that: “frustration and alienation would seem to be the main instigators of civil unrest.”