The city drew breath following a lawless night in which police and troops came under sustained attack after the authorities refused to allow an Orange parade to pass through a nationalist area of west Belfast.
Following an Orange call for supporters to take to the streets, disturbances broke out across Co Antrim, with violence in the towns of Ballyclare, Carrickfergus and Larne, as well as the north Belfast suburbs of Glengormley and Rathcoole. In the village of Ahoghill, where violence has been directed at Catholic residents in recent weeks, young people went on a rampage, setting cars on fire and throwing fireworks at police.
A bomb factory was found yesterday during the security operation that followed the violence, which left 32 police officers injured. Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde revealed that seven weapons were also recovered in north Belfast, where some of the worst rioting took place. He added that 1,000 police officers and 1,000 troops had been deployed.
The Government and police blamed the Orange Order but it in turn said that heavy-handed policing had caused much of the trouble.
Ironically, most attention in political terms has been focused on republicans, with the authorities waiting for the IRA to fulfil the public promise it made some weeks ago to decommission all of its weapons. But alongside the anticipation that this promise has generated, the summer has been marred by bouts of loyalist violence of several sorts, culminating in the weekend's rioting. Four men have been shot dead in internal loyalist feuding while trouble has repeatedly broken out on the streets.
Shots have been fired at police on several occasions in north Belfast, with several bullets hitting armoured vehicles. The Army, which is rarely used now and appears only at times of severe pressure on police, has been deployed in Belfast as the disturbances have become widespread at up to half a dozen locations in the city.
One man, believed to be a loyalist figure, was critically ill in hospital yesterday after a blast bomb exploded while at least six police officers needed medical treatment. The Orange Order's call for supporters to take to the streets had been clearly answered not just by its supporters but also by armed paramilitary groups, who evidently had guns and blast bombs at the ready.
Trouble had been widely forecast after the Northern Ireland Parades Commission ruled it would be dangerous to allow a march, postponed since June, to travel along the nationalist Springfield Road.
Sir Hugh said yesterday it was fortunate none of his officers had died. "Police officers and soldiers have come under sustained attack," he said. "They have been attacked with missiles, petrol bombs, blast bombs, and pipe bombs. They have been shot at."
The Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, is due to meet Sir Hugh today for talks on security.
Sir Hugh said: "My officers and the soldiers have acted like heroes. They have taken incredible violence and responded with minimal force. It is truly world-class policing."
He insisted: "I have seen members of the Orange Order in their sashes attacking my officers. I have seen them standing next to masked men. The Orange Order must bear substantial responsibility for this. They publicly called people on to the streets."
The Orange Order said police actions had been "brutal and heavy handed".
"All we would say is that if what we saw was policing, it was policing at its worse."
Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, said there had been "a concerted effort to draw young nationalists and republicans into the trouble."
Ulster's summer of violence
The Roe Valley Integrated Primary School in Limavady, Co Derry, was attacked by arsonists last week.
Five petrol bombs were thrown into the canteen and library of St Mary's Catholic primary school in Harryville last week, causing £1,000-worth of damage.
6 September 2005: Kathleen McCaughey, 51, a Catholic, was forced out of her house in Ahoghill, Ballymena, after a campaign of intimidation lasting several months.
30 July 2005: Stephen Paul, a suspected loyalist paramilitary, was shot dead and another wounded in Belfast in the continuing wave of feuding by rival loyalist gangs.
15 June 2005: Mick Green, 42, was shot dead in south Belfast. He was believed to have been the victim of a turf war between the rival Ulster Volunteer Force and Loyalist Volunteer Force.
2 June 2005: Two houses in Brooke Manor and Milltown, Co Armagh, occupied by Lithuanian families were attacked with pipe-bombs.Reuse content