Friday 14 December 2018

Riots 'wake-up call' - police chief

Serious rioting that erupted in Belfast is a wake-up call that must see efforts redoubled to secure a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, the region's chief constable has said.

Matt Baggott said the violence in the east of city, which saw three people shot, was deeply worrying and vowed to bring those responsible to justice.

But he stressed that the unrest was localised and not reflective of present day Northern Ireland.

"It's a sadness that this has happened," he said.

"We take two steps forward, we take one step back. We should recognise that in some places the peace is fragile and it's a wake-up call to us all to redouble our efforts to make sure that we do make Northern Ireland a safer and more prosperous place that everybody wants."

Mr Baggott spent much of the morning briefing members of his oversight body - the Northern Ireland Policing Board - on the riots at a notorious interface between loyalist and republicans neighbourhoods.

"Let's be clear, the last few nights were very concerning," he said afterwards.

"But they (the disturbances) were local, the sight of armoured Land Rovers dealing with petrol bombs, and taking that to stop the conflict escalating, is something we haven't seen for quite some time.

"But the reality of Northern Ireland is day in day out, if you go to many communities, you'll find enormous hope, enormous good work being done and some great policing taking place, so let's not lose perspective, it's been worrying, difficult, but the truth is Northern Ireland has a great future, if we just make sure that we keep working at it harder and harder."

After two nights of sustained unrest, yesterday east Belfast was relatively trouble free.

Talks between community representatives were credited for restoring order while the power-sharing executive's First Minister and Deputy First Minister have pledged to investigate the main interface concerns.

But there are now growing fears of further rioting over the summer marching season.

Mr Baggott said the key to a peaceful summer was dialogue.

"The answer has to be talking, talking and more talking and an awful lot of tolerance on everybody's behalf," he said.

"I know those conversations are taking place already.

"There's too much at stake here. Northern Ireland has a great future, it's a wonderful place, we've got great plans for policing, we're more accessible, more visible, we've got the lowest crime for decades, the lowest road deaths for decades, policing within communities it wasn't before, doing good things - let's not put that at risk.

"And that's the talking that has to take place over the next few weeks."

During the two nights of violence, dissident republicans are suspected of firing live rounds which left a press photographer with a leg injury, while two other men suffered bullet wounds in separate shootings.

A 20-year-old woman has been arrested on suspicion of possessing an offensive weapon and assaulting police.

Last night, police arrested a 22-year-old man from west Belfast in connection with the disorder.

Police said the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had orchestrated the trouble.

One of the organisation's perceived grievances is that the specialist police unit tasked to review cold case Troubles murders is focusing more of its attention on loyalists than republicans.

But the Chief Constable defended the work of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). He said a specific probe on crimes of the UVF in north Belfast, which had resulted in many arrests, focused on the period after the ceasefire, and stressed it was now being carried out by the police, not the HET.

"I know there's a perception that somehow the HET are biased - they absolutely are not," he added.

Praising the bravery of his officers in east Belfast and thanking all those in the community who had worked to restore order, Mr Baggott said the troublemakers would be pursued.

"Where there are people who have brought misery to the streets, exploited people's vulnerability, we will pursue that through the criminal justice approach and those investigations are under way," he said.

Policing Board chairman Brian Rea praised those who had engaged in dialogue to calm tensions.

"As a board, we very much welcome that the interventions by community representatives, church and political leaders resulted in a relatively peaceful night in east Belfast," he said.

"We hope these talks and discussions can continue today and in the days ahead so that peace is maintained in the area.

"At today's meeting the Chief Constable provided members with a full report on the disorder and the police tactics used in response. Board members had particular questions around the issue of preparedness and also questioned the Chief Constable on the handling of what was a very serious and volatile public order situation.

"Board members have been assured by the Chief Constable that those who purposefully come on to our streets to cause trouble will be subject to investigation.

"It is important that in follow-up action a clear message is sent that engagement in riotous behaviour will result in prosecution. This is an approach which the board strongly supports."

Board members also called for all those who have interest and influence to work for a peaceful marching season.

Rioting broke out on Monday night amid UVF violence against Catholic homes in the Short Strand.

Missiles were hurled between nationalists and unionists on the nearby Lower Newtownards Road, the police intervened and became targets. Two men were taken to the Ulster Hospital with gunshot wounds.

On Tuesday night, trouble began shortly before 9pm after large crowds gathered at the same east Belfast interface.

Masked youths used sledgehammers to try to smash through police vehicles and jumped on to their bonnets in an attempt to rip off the protective metal guards.

Masonry, petrol, paint bombs and other missiles were hurled at officers and water cannon vehicles were brought in.

Detectives said they believed dissident republicans were responsible after a Press Association photographer suffered a gunshot wound to his right leg.

Dissidents have been responsible for a string of attacks on members of the security forces. In April they planted an under-car explosive device which killed Constable Ronan Kerr, 25, outside his home in Omagh, Co Tyrone.

Talks with east Belfast community representatives went on for much of Tuesday in an effort to secure an end to the violence. Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson has offered to help.

He and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have instructed one of their senior officials to engage urgently with local communities and their leaders in the Newtownards Road and Short Strand areas to identify issues of concern around the interface.

The loyal order marching season is approaching its peak next month, traditionally a time of heightened street conflict.

The UVF is one of the biggest loyalist groups and, despite having observed a ceasefire and decommissioned its weapons, it was blamed for a murder last year.

A paramilitary watchdog found that the UVF's leadership sanctioned what was branded the "public execution" of loyalist Bobby Moffett, who was shot dead in front of shoppers on Belfast's Shankill Road.

But the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) stopped short of recommending government sanction of the UVF.

The recent appearance of UVF murals in east Belfast depicting masked and armed men was seen as a bid by the group to stamp its mark.

The location of this week's riots is an inner-city area, not far from the centre of Belfast, and has been a long-standing flashpoint.

The Short Strand is a small Catholic community in the predominantly Protestant east of the city.

Police today said they had arrested a man aged 28 from West Belfast under terrorism legislation following dissident republican activity during the public disorder and attempted murder of police officers in East Belfast. He has been taken to Antrim serious crime suite for questioning.

It is understood that First Minister Peter Robinson has met UVF leaders in east Belfast as part of efforts to maintain calm.

Mr Robinson had already asked a senior government official to work with both communities.

© Press Association

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