The British Government on Tuesday expressed concern over the renewed sectarian tension in Northern Ireland after a fifth consecutive night of violence in Belfast with police claiming that rioters attacked them with hatchets, sledgehammers and petrol bombs.

Police fired plastic bullets and water cannons to control the situation. Several people, including three police officers, were injured in the clashes.

The trouble, described as the worst in recent years, has been brewing since last month when the Belfast City Council voted to restrict the number of days in the year when the Union Jack will fly over City Hall, rather than everyday as has traditionally been the practice.

Dissident Protestant unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, have protested against the move accusing Sinn Fein, the party of Catholic Republicans, of “bulldozing” the vote through the council.

‘Disrupting peace ’

Sinn Fein has, in turn, accused dissident unionists of trying to disrupt the 15-year-old peace process which has allowed it to share power with the largest unionist group, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), in a coalition government.

The violence on Monday night — the first time that the council met since the ‘flag vote’ on December 3 — was a culmination of street protests that have seen regular clashes between rival groups on the one hand, and protesters and the police on the other.

As the situation appeared to deteriorate, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers said the province was being “held to ransom by protesters” and appealed for calm. Describing the situation as “profoundly depressing”, she said: “It’s not acceptable that those who say they are defending a union flag are actually doing it by hurling bricks and petrol bombs at police. It’s disgraceful, frankly.”

Ms. Villiers urged the protesters to “come off the streets” in order for political leaders to resolve the dispute through negotiations.

“We will not be able to get a solution if Belfast and Northern Ireland are being held to ransom by protesters…All these protests have to stop altogether, even the peaceful protests are causing disruption and even they are making it far more difficult to have a proper dialogue to resolve these kinds of issues,” she told the BBC.

Labour party said the riots had become a matter of “national security” amid fears of more violence ahead.

More In: International | News