By Ian Graham
BELFAST (Reuters) - Five Northern Irish politicians received bullets through the post on Wednesday in a chilling development of a protest against restrictions on the flying of Britain's union flag from Belfast City Hall.
Pro-British loyalists have rioted and fought street battles with police for much of the last two weeks after a decision by mostly nationalist city councilors to end the century-old tradition of flying the British flag from City Hall every day.
Among those targeted was David Ford, the Northern Ireland Justice Minister and leader of the Alliance Party, whose support of nationalists carried through the vote to only fly the flag on 17 specified days a year - such as the Queen's birthday.
"People are now taking action way beyond anything that may have been expected to arise from a democratic decision of a local council," said Ford, who has been critical of the response of pro-British Unionist politicians to the violence.
"Every individual in political life needs to examine what they are doing, the words that they are using and whether the things that they are saying could be contributing to creating this difficult atmosphere."
The other bullets were sent to politicians in the Alliance Party and Sinn Fein at their parliamentary offices and were intercepted by security staff.
More than 40 police officers have been injured in the violence, which has eased off in recent days. Sixty people have been arrested for rioting - 43 have so far been charged, the youngest a boy of 11 who appeared in court on Monday.
The protests marred a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who travelled to Belfast earlier this month to lend her support to a 15-year-old peace process that helped mostly end three decades of sectarian bloodshed.
At least 3,600 people were killed during Northern Ireland's darkest period as Catholic nationalists seeking union with Ireland fought British security forces and mainly Protestant Loyalists determined to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Unionist party leaders met to discuss the tensions earlier on Wednesday and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) said he would ask other leaders to initiate a formal review of the issue of flags.
However demonstrators were back on the streets on Wednesday night and have said they will hold a third weekend rally outside Belfast City Hall on Saturday. Last week's rally by about 500 people passed peacefully.
Sinn Fein Assembly member Gerry Kelly, who was sent one of the bullets after receiving a death threat to his North Belfast constituency office at the start of December, said the latest threat was an attempt to intimidate elected representatives.
"This will not deflect Sinn Fein from our work of seeking parity of esteem when it comes to reflecting people's Irishness and Britishness," he said.
"Obviously protesters have been wound up prior to the decision in Belfast and those that have kept up the tension need to reflect on what they have created." (Editing by Padraic Halpin)