Police in Belfast are on high alert after loyalists burned two Irish tricolours at a mass Union Flag protest in the city center.

Demonstrators in a 2,000 strong crowd applauded as the Irish flags were burnt on another day of tension in the province.

The demo caused police to close the city’s famous Christmas market as the Union flag row continued over a decision to curtail the flying of the British flag outside City Hall.

Two masked men burnt the Irish flags in an act of defiance as the protest brought the city center to a halt on one of the busiest Christmas shopping days of the year.

Leading Loyalists including PUP leader Billy Hutchinson and UDA boss Jackie McDonald ended the demo with a rendition of God Save The Queen.

Former Belfast Deputy-Mayor and DUP councillor Ruth Patterson refused to condemn the burning of the Irish flag.

Patterson said: “I don’t condone it but I’m not going to condemn it. The protesters are disillusioned.”

Riots broke out again in East Belfast after the rally with eight people arrested on public order offences.

Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr told reporters that loyalist paramilitaries are orchestrating some of the violence. Kerr also appealed for calm.

He said: “It is time for everyone to take a step back from this and think seriously about the consequences, not just for themselves, but also for Northern Ireland as a whole, for the economy, for jobs, for tourism.”