'My heart is breaking for Northern Ireland': MP makes emotional plea for peace as police warn they are 'stretched to the limit'

Development follows attempt on the life of a policewoman in Belfast

Following an attempt on the life of a policewoman in Belfast, police representatives warned they are “stretched to the limit” in attempting to cope with rampaging loyalists.

The protests and violent attacks, which have been going on for nine days, have grown steadily in number and seriousness, culminating in the incident in which masked loyalists threw a petrol bomb into an unmarked police car.

While the officer physical injury police said she and 26 other officers injured in disturbances would receive counselling to prevent traumatic stress.

She and another officer were guarding the office of Alliance Westminster MP Naomi Long, who is under a loyalist death threat after her party supported restrictions on the flying of the union jack.

The offices and homes of several Alliance figures have since come under attack, Ms Long saying that the incidents had “started to take on the dynamics of a pogrom.”

She added: “My heart is breaking for Northern Ireland but my resolve is not broken. We cannot concede democracy to those who would bring mayhem and chaos to the streets. Police are holding the line between mob rule and the rule of law.”

Tonight First Minister Peter Robinson said police had informed two senior members of his Democratic Unionist party that their lives are at risk. He would not say who had threatened their lives.

Last night 43 protests took place in Belfast and elsewhere, four of which were violent. In most cases loyalists waved union jacks and blocked roads, including major arteries. In one case access to a major hospital was blocked.

Police said that in the past week they arrested 38 people, and would eventually charge many more. They defended their practice of generally not interfering in the protests, which are mostly non-violent but illegal, saying they were reacting “in a graduated and proportionate way.”

Tonight further traffic jams were caused when more stoppages were staged on main roads out of Belfast. Among those involved on the streets are women and children.

More protests are thought to be on the way since social media are being used to call loyalists to gather at various locations. Chief Constable Matt Baggott described the outbreaks as “mob violence which has been stoked up by individuals and the social media.”

Amid appeals for calm, attempts were yesterday under way to influence the biggest loyalist paramilitary groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association, who police accuse of orchestrating the violence.

Unionist political leaders have called for an ending or suspension of the street action. Last night Billy Hutchinson, an ex-prisoner associated with the UVF, said he had received an invitation from First Minister Peter Robinson, and did not rule out a meeting.

Police Federation chairman Terry Spence described the violence as “barbaric in the extreme,” denouncing the “fascist jackboot tactics of so-called loyalist gangs.”

He added: “It is a very volatile situation. The police are stretched to the limit in trying to prevent this disorder. This is taking us back to the dark old days - we have to move out of this potential abyss.”

Belfast businesses complain that trade has dropped considerably because of the continuing disruption, with fewer visitors than usual coming from the Irish Republic. Hotels and restaurants say there have been many cancellations from people nervous about going into the city.

Naomi Long was cheered when she took part in a Commons debate yesterday. Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said there was no excuse for “thuggish and lawless behaviour,” adding: “They are not defending the union flag. They are dishonouring and shaming the flag of our country.

“There is nothing remotely British about what they are doing. They discredit the cause that they claim to support.”

Today David Cameron is to make a Commons statement following publication of a major report into the 1989 loyalist murder of prominent Belfast defence solicitor Pat Finucane.

The report is the work of a senior lawyer. Mr Cameron has already offered a formal apology to the Finucane family, accepting there was state collusion in the killing.

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