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Flag removals spark night of riots

The PSNI have apologized for removing loyalist flags from lampposts in a County Antrim town.

Their actions in Ballyclare on Saturday sparked a night of rioting in South Antrim, with six policemen being injured when their vehicle was rammed by a hijacked bus. There was further rioting in nearby Carrickfergus and Larne.

Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay said police would apologize when in the wrong, but violence did not have to be "inevitable."

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Trouble flared following the removal of union flags and loyalist paramilitary flags near a Catholic church in Ballyclare.

Police deployed water cannon and fired baton rounds after a number of petrol bombs and missiles were thrown at them by loyalists.

"There were some parts of the process we could have undertaken differently and we will look at that," said Finlay.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson said the violence was an "over reaction" and that the trouble was "orchestrated" in an attempt to "spread police resources."

SDLP policing spokesperson, Connall McDevitt, condemned the rioting and said there has been a "significant escalation in the flying of paramilitary flags across the North this summer."

"This has caused considerable distress in communities on both sides of the divide," he said.

"The police cannot fix the problem of flags long-term but it must be fixed politically and with real leadershipfrom the top.

"It's with deep regret that for the past five years Sinn Féin and the DUP have failed to progress the establishment of a meaningful flags protocol, which would control the flying of flags particularly in contentious situations."

Alliance leader and South Antrim MLA David Ford said the decision made by the police was "right" and in keeping with the existing flags protocol.

"They bear no blame for what happened on Saturday night. The blame lies entirely with those who caused fear and mayhem in Ballyclare," he said.

The Flags Protocol was agreed before justice and policing powers were devolved to Northern Ireland in April 2010.

Mr. Ford said the protocol would be reviewed by an Executive sub-committee in the next few days.

Assistant Chief Constable Finlay said people need to take personal responsibility about what goes on in their local areas.

"The community needs to step in and reclaim the streets from these people that were causing damage to their own community. Destroying cars and putting the lives of elderly and young children at risk and in fear in this time of heightened tensions," he said.

"The disorder that broke out in Carrickfergus seemed to us a result of some degree of contact between the people engaged in Ballyclare in seeking to distract police to another site."