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Northern Ireland clashes the work of small minority, Irish PM says

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • The problem has been worse than usual this year, Prime Minister Brian Cowen says
  • Rioters have thrown fireworks and petrol bombs at police, who responded with stun grenades
  • Violence often breaks out on the anniversary of a significant battle in Irish history

(CNN) -- Violence in Northern Ireland over the past few days is the work of a small, unrepresentative minority, the Irish prime minister told CNN in a wide-ranging interview as the unrest continued for a fourth night.

"You know, there are sectarian tensions, as you know, at this time of the year unfortunately," Brian Cowen 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, according to police.

Dozens of police officers have been hurt since Saturday, and there have been at least five arrests, police said.

But the violence is not typical of Northern Ireland or its people, Cowen said.

"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

"And I think that the police will get a handle on it and take care of it. ... These are a very unrepresentative minority who don't have a mandate from anybody," he said.

Cowen is prime minister of the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland, where the violence have taken place, is part of the United Kingdom.

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.

Known as The Twelfth, the holiday has previously been marred by violence and has been a source of tension between Catholics and Protestants for years.

CNN's Melissa Gray contributed to this report.