Brian Cowen, the Irish Prime Minister, has said that the recent clashes in Northern Ireland were the work of a “small unrepresentative minority” and that they weren’t symptomatic of a broader move into conflict in the region.

The Taoiseach acknowledged in a broad-ranging interview with CNN that the tensions this year were worse than usual but underlined his belief that the clashes weren’t representative of tensions in the larger population.

"You know, there are sectarian tensions, as you know, at this time of the year unfortunately," the Taoiseach told CNN's Fionnuala Sweeney, "It's a perennial problem. It's a much reduced problem. But this year has been worse than usual," he acknowledged.

Rioters in Belfast, Northern Ireland, have thrown petrol bombs, fireworks and chunks of cement at police, who have responded with stun grenades and water cannons. Dozens of police officers have been hurt since Saturday when the riots were first sparked off, and there have been at least five arrests made.

"I think there are just some elements -- small, unrepresentative elements on both sides of the divide -- who like to foment some sectarian tension at this time," he said.

The violence began over the weekend after a decision to allow a Protestant parade to pass through a mainly Catholic neighborhood on July 12, a day when Protestants march to celebrate the victory of England's King William III over his ousted Catholic predecessor, James II, in 1690.

The holiday has previously been marred by violence and has been a source of tension between Catholics and Protestants for years.

On Thursday, though, police chiefs were already making statements that violence was on the wane, although over 80 officers have been injured so far.

Belfast deputy commander, Duncan McCausland, says rioting Wednesday night and Thursday morning in the Ardoyne district of north Belfast involved "a substantially smaller group of people." Two rioters were arrested, while other riot-hit districts were quiet overnight.

McCausland says the Ardoyne rioters "include a hardened core of around 12 people who are intent on causing disorder."

The police have been preventing Catholics and Protestants from directly confronting each other.