New Lodge: PSNI pulled back from bonfire riot 'to protect community'
Tower block residents in north Belfast were last night urged to leave their homes, just hours before a controversial bonfire was due to be lit.
The Housing Executive warning came shortly after police retreated from a confrontation in the mainly republican New Lodge area over fears that innocent bystanders could be hurt in any ensuing violence.
The PSNI officer in charge of yesterday's failed attempt to oversee the removal of the bonfire by contractors yesterday apologised to the New Lodge community for the unsuccessful operation.
The PSNI said six petrol bombs had been recovered and a 13-year-old youth was arrested on suspicion of riotous and disorderly behaviour. Three police officers were injured.
Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said: "I would like to apologise to the community that we have not been successful in achieving the objective today.
"I don't regard it as a successful outcome: neither would anybody else."
The senior officer, defended his decision to pull more than 150 of his officers out of the area on public safety grounds - and accused rioters of using women and children as human shields to attack police.
He also accused dissident republicans of orchestrating violence by local youths.
"A large crowd gathered in the area including a number of women and children and at times the people looking to attack the police lines were using those women and children as shields, he said.
"It is a question for me as a police commander. Am I going to continue ramping up the use of police force against a wider community with innocent members present? Including water cannon, including the potential for AEPs, commonly known as plastic bullets?
"Am I prepared to do that merely to save face on behalf of the organisation and sacrifice public safety as a result? The answer is, no I am not."
He added: "I regrettably had to take a decision today that the risks of continuing the operation to remove a bonfire were outweighed by the risk that operation would then pose to the wider community, the women, children and others there present.
"That's a matter of regret to me, that we were unsuccessful in the objective of the operation.
"It is nonetheless, a responsible, professional policing decision, taken within the law, and taken with very little room for other decisions to be made."
The rioting broke out after a number of men refused to remove themselves from the summit of a towering bonfire.
Despite sinister warnings spray-painted on the wall of the adjacent family centre next to the north Belfast bonfire reading "our wood goes... this centre goes", contractors had been tasked by the landowners, the Department for Infrastructure (DfI), to remove the structure.
With support from the PSNI, the contractors attempted to move into Queen's Parade before 6am but two men climbed on top of the structure in protest.
As the crowds began to gather yesterday morning, the police presence increased in an effort to create a barrier around the bonfire using officers in full riot gear and a number of Land Rovers.
After spending four hours on top of the bonfire, supporters of the two men threw bottles of water to them. As officers tried to stop this a number of stones, bricks and fireworks were directed at police lines.
Families of the two men were allowed to approach the bonfire to talk them down as spectators watched on from the balconies of the New Lodge flats.
One of the protesters climbed down after almost six hours and it was agreed with police that he would not be arrested.
However, the other man on the bonfire refused to come down - and began playing up to the ever-increasing crowd by shouting: "I'm not giving in."
As the rioting continued a metal barrier was thrown at police, knocking one officer to the ground.
Two other men then climbed up onto the bonfire as the situation showed no sign of ending.
Another officer was also felled during a confrontation between bonfire supporters and police before the media was targeted, with a number of rioters attempting to destroy television cameras.
After the PSNI pulled out of the operation at 3pm, lawyers for the Department confirmed that the planned removal of the bonfire would not go ahead without PSNI support.
Residents in the Oisin and Fianna tower blocks beside the bonfire were later advised to leave, as the Housing Executive said it could not guarantee their safety.
Sinn Fein's North Belfast MLAs Gerry Kelly and Carál Ní Chuilín were both present throughout the stand-off as they tried to calm the situation.
However, both were subjected to a torrent of abuse from a number of the bonfire's supporters.
Speaking at the scene, Mr Kelly explained that Sinn Fein met with some residents earlier this week over the anti-internment bonfire but they were "adamant" that it would go ahead.
"Some of the people, and I can't tar them all with the same brush, but some of the people are clearly involved in anti-social behaviour," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"We basically have a stand-off with negotiators here trying to get them off the bonfire and it's very difficult to do anything until they come off the bonfire," he added.
Residents in the New Lodge suffered four consecutive nights of anti-social behaviour last week, with police officers also coming under attack from criminal elements.