The PSNI has vowed to take a tougher stance when dealing with loyalist protests — saying they will make hundreds of arrests in the coming weeks.
A senior police officer said a special task force is currently trawling hundreds of hours of video and CCTV to identify those behind disruption and disorder of roadblocks over the past seven weeks.
And he said the number of impending arrests in the coming days and weeks could run into several hundred.
So far there has been a total of 174 protest-related arrests since December 3, with 124 people charged.
Of those arrested, more than half are under the age of 21 — and a third under the age of 17.
Asked how many arrests police expect to make over the next few weeks, a spokesman said he predicted the figure to be a multiple of the 174 to date. Police also confirmed they have contacted the Parades Commission regarding its position on the City Hall protests and marches which take place every Saturday afternoon without permission.
They are awaiting a determination from the independent body on parading issues.
Speaking at police headquarters in east Belfast yesterday, Detective Superintendent Sean Wright said police had launched a firmer response to protests in the past fortnight.
And he said the PSNI is working alongside two senior members of the Metropolitan Police who investigated the 2011 London riots.
He said: “This operation has been ongoing since the start of these protests on December 3, however we have recently dedicated additional officers and staff to it and have opened a new major incident room.
“The team, which is made up of over 70 detectives, police staff and
specialist investigators, will be relentless in the pursuit of those who are responsible for the violence in recent weeks.
“We will continue to work with the Court Service to ensure additional court hearings are available when required to assist us with bringing those arrested before the courts .”
Mr Wright said those identified as having taken part in illegal roadblocks or rioting face arrest.
He said: “My investigative team will continue to rigorously pursue those involved in this disorder and violence and will be relentless in our pursuit of those who are responsible for organising and participating in it.
“Persons who are masking their faces, breaking the law, involved in public disorder and blocking roads will be arrested and we want teenagers to understand that there are serious, potentially life-changing consequences to the actions they decide to take now.”
He said parents of young people involved in the trouble “need to take responsibility”.
In the coming weeks, police will be releasing images of those involved in the violence, Mr Wright said. He said it was vital members of the public who can identify those engaging in criminality contact the police.
Mr Wright confirmed that specialist resources have been dedicated to closely monitoring and reviewing all social media.
He added: “To date, we have referred over 40 cases to the PPS regarding comments made on Facebook and Twitter, however none to date have met the threshold for prosecution.”
A spokesperson for the Parades Commission said: “The commission is clarifying the legal position in relation to the ongoing events taking place in Belfast on Saturdays.”