Loyalists plan Belfast flag protest for St Patrick's Day
LOYALISTS have said they will hold a 12-hour 'Union flag vigil' outside Belfast City Hall on St Patrick's Day, in a move criticised by nationalist politicians.
The protest is scheduled to begin at 1pm on March 17, a day when thousands of people will be congregating in the city centre to celebrate the patron saint.
The council's annual St Patrick's Day parade is set to depart the City Hall at noon en route to a concert at Custom House Square.
The flag protest has been called by 'Loyal Peoples Protest', which has been responsible for many other demonstrations in recent years, and which posted the notice on social media alongside the slogan "No Surrender".
If the vigil goes ahead it will be the third consecutive year that Union flag protests have taken place at City Hall on March 17.
Last year the celebrations were marred by disturbances between rival groups of youths waving Union flags and tricolours on nearby Royal Avenue, with the trouble breaking out shortly after the start of the loyalist flag protest.
A Union flag was also set alight during the skirmishes between the groups, who attempted to taunt each other by exchanging Celtic and Rangers football chants.
Around 15,000 people are believed to have attended the St Patrick's Day parade and concert in Belfast city centre last year.
A 12-year-old girl was hurt during the minor disturbances in the city centre, while a 13-year-old boy was among 33 people arrested across south and east Belfast during last year's St Patrick's celebrations.
Sinn Féin councillor Niall O Donnghaile, a former Belfast mayor, said the flag protest is "unnecessary."
"The last time this group organised a protest they had five people there and their protests have been a complete and utter damp squib," he said.
"St Patrick's Day in Belfast has been successful in the last few years, a family day, and I think that anyone who is trying to bring a protest out onto the streets will be treated with the contempt they deserve."
SDLP councillor Tim Attwood, who is vice-chair of Belfast City Council's good relations partnership, also said parade organisers "won't allow a small minority to upset the parade and those out enjoying St Patrick's Day".
"It is not a very original idea for flag protestors to protest on the day that we celebrate the patron saint of every culture on this island," he said.
"I am vice-chairman of the good relations partnership and we are funding organisations from all over Belfast, all communities and creeds, who want to play their part in celebrating our patron saint."