PSNI chief in two-tier policing storm - Unionist anger after claims that children as young as six were injured in CS spray incident
'This happened after one officer made a mistake... it could have started a riot'
Unionist anger over the policing of a Belfast Loyal Order parade has intensified amid claims children as young as six were exposed to CS spray.
The youngsters, aged between six and nine, were allegedly injured when police used CS gas in an incident involving officers and bandsmen at the junior Orange Order parade on Tuesday night on the Ormeau Road.
It was alleged that two of the youngsters had to be treated in hospital for the effects of the spray, which include swollen and stinging eyes and lips.
A number of other children were allegedly left traumatised by the scenes they witnessed.
One father of a six-year-old boy caught up in the trouble said that his son had been left too frightened to leave the house.
The PSNI defended the use of the gas, insisting it was deployed after two officers came under attack from adult band members as they tried to "move bandsmen away from brushing against parked cars".
Chief Superintendent Chris Noble said any contact that children or young people had with CS spray particles was "deeply regretted".
He insisted that the incident could have been avoided "had some bandsmen followed police directions".
He added that an officer spoke with parade organisers "about some band members who were walking in amongst parked cars and traffic" and "then asked the band members to step back, but they simply disregarded his requests".
He added: "At that point, one of the officers tried to move bandsmen away from brushing against parked cars when he came under attack by a section of the band. The other officer got off his motorcycle to assist his colleague, when he was also attacked and the police motorbike damaged.
"Due to the number of people attacking the officers, they defended themselves with their batons. CS incapacitant spray was directed only on the people attacking them and the incident was brought under control."
Parade organiser Noel Liggett, Master of Ballynafeigh District and the County Secretary for Belfast Junior County Lodge, said that five young children, aged between six and nine, were "unnecessarily" injured from the effect of the CS gas. "Around 20 children were on parade with us," he added. "The average age would be six, seven, eight and nine. Five of them suffered the effect of CS gas and many of the young children were left in a state of shock.
"This happened because one police officer made a very bad mistake, which could have resulted in a riot taking place.
"It was very poor judgment. Ballynafeigh has always had a very positive relationship with police. I hope that the events of Tuesday do not damage that relationship.
"This was a legal, peaceful parade. That officer acted off his own bat. He should have come to me as the organiser had he thought there was a problem. A very bad decision by one police officer almost led to a riot."
Unionist politicians compared the police attitude to the softly-softly approach to some dissident republican parades over Easter and the picture of a PSNI officer stabilising a ladder for a man erecting a tricolour.
Policing Board member Jonathan Craig said he had "grave concerns" about the use of force at the parade, especially with so many young children in the area.
"This was not the way to police an event like this," the DUP MLA added. "We are always being told by the PSNI about the training that officers get in relation to use of force and if youths and young children are involved. They always talk about proportionate responses. Was this response proportionate? The PSNI have a lot of serious questions to answer.
South Belfast independent councillor Ruth Patterson added serious questions needed answered as to why use of force was used at a peaceful and legal parade with young children marching at the front.
"Children were left both physically injured and traumatised. It was absolutely disgraceful what happened," she said.
Ulster Unionist South Belfast Assembly candidate Rodney McCune, said that the police's actions during the parade raised serious questions about the force's judgment.
"Deploying CS spray is far from a conventional or proportionate way to respond to suspected criminal damage," he insisted.
First Minister Arlene Foster said she had spoken to the Chief Constable about the incident.
Unionist politicians have said there is great anger over perceived differences in the policing of loyalist and republican events.
The CS spray controversy comes just days after dissident republicans staged illegal parades through Londonderry, Coalisland and Lurgan.
Bob Stoker, UKIP south Belfast assembly candidate, said: "I really believe that we are starting to witness a system of two-tier policing here. There seems to be a total disregard for those who are acting within the law and are subjected to strong-arm tactics by some police officers.
"Other people who act outside of the process laid down are not subject to any direct intervention."
The PSNI said that two police officers received minor injuries during the incident in south Belfast.
A 26-year-old man was arrested and charged with disorderly behaviour and two counts of assault on police.