The PSNI has vowed to bring rioters who went on the rampage in Belfast during a night of sectarian violence before the courts within days.
Police stepped up patrols in east Belfast yesterday amid concern that tensions would erupt into another night of sustained violence.
PSNI Commander for east Belfast, Chief Inspector John McKeagh, said that Monday night’s violent clashes were among the worst he has seen in the area in recent years.
Blaming “sinister elements” for the violence, Mr McKeagh said that a team of officers has already identified a number of the rioters and that they will be brought before the courts within the next few days.
Trouble exploded when up to 200 loyalists and republicans clashed after a Sinn Fein rally to celebrate the closure of Mountpottinger Police Station in east Belfast.
Missiles, including bricks, paving stones and golf balls were thrown between the two groups as well as at police officers. Officers fired six baton rounds when rioters refused to disperse.
“It was certainly right up there with the worst violence I have seen in east Belfast in recent years. If you look at my vehicles you can see the damage caused and the sustained attack my officers had to take throughout that period,” said Chief Inspector McKeagh.
He added: “Six baton rounds were fired. I was the senior officer on last night and it was my judgment to use the rounds. That means I was given an update as to what was happening on the ground throughout the whole period and there was a significant risk of injury to police officers and the general community in that area.
“I don't want to go down the blame game with anyone. I am here today to say to the community, let’s work together.”
Sinn Fein has been ac
cused of being “reckless” and “provocative” for organising the rally in a flashpoint area where there is a history of sectarian clashes.
DUP MLA Robin Newton said: “I lay the blame for this firmly at Sinn Fein. They held this carnival at the closure of Mountpottinger Station knowing that those who had campaigned to keep it open would find it insulting.”
But east Belfast Sinn Fein representative Niall O Donnghaile said that the violence had nothing to do with the rally, but was an escalation of trouble that has been ongoing at the interface for the past 18 months.
“What I can say is that the people who were taking part in the rally dispersed peacefully and went about their business. There was no connection between the rally and what happened,” he said.
Lord Mayor Naomi Long said that serious questions need to be asked of Sinn Fein as to why they held the rally.
“The closure of Mountpottinger has been a difficult and sensitive issue on both sides. Before the rally was held we did question the wisdom of holding a rally around these events. It shows a complete lack of political maturity. We thought this was quite a provocative move. It is a very sensitive issue and should have been handled with more maturity.”
The PUP’s Dawn Purvis added: “There has been ongoing trouble in that area so why would you bring people onto the streets when you know it is going to lead to trouble?”