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Cameron: Belfast riots 'completely unacceptable'

By Kris Jepson

Updated on 14 July 2010

As David Cameron brands the Belfast riots of the last three nights 'completely unacceptable' and praises the police, former Commander of Scotland Yard's flying squad John O'Connor tells Channel 4 News it may be time for the police to change to more 'pro-active' tactics.

Belfast riots (Reuters)

David Cameron today branded the last three nights of violence on the streets of north Belfast as "completely unacceptable".

Following a third night of trouble, Mr Cameron also paid tribute to the "restraint" and bravery shown by the officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), despite over 80 of its force receiving injuries in the clashes.

Mr Cameron said: "Anyone watching the pictures on our television screens last night could see how brave, how restrained they were in the way they dealt with completely unacceptable behaviour.

"Last night was the third night of violence - the most serious of which has been in the Ardoyne district in north Belfast.

"Over 80 police officers have been injured after being attacked, including by petrol bombs, pipe bombs and bricks. The police came under fire on Sunday night and shots were again fired last night.

"The police have been forced to retaliate with baton rounds and water cannons. But anyone who watched what they did or who has had, like I had, a briefing from David Ford, the Policing and Justice Minister, knows they acted with real restraint in what they did."

Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman pledged her party would continue to support and work with the government in its efforts to ensure a "peaceful future" for the people of Northern Ireland.

This afternoon police chiefs are meeting with the leaders of the Northern Ireland assembley, after the assistant chief constable had criticised the lack of response from the politicians.

Third night
A number of petrol bombs were thrown at police in Ardoyne last night, which was the scene of Monday night's disturbances too. Police responded to the attacks by using water cannon.

There are no reports of injuries and officers from the PSNI say they are working with community leaders in a bid to end the violence.

Earlier on Tuesday evening police successfully worked with community representatives in the nationalist Short Strand, Markets and lower Ormeau areas to tackle attempts by youths to spark violence.

The First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson and the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness yesterday hit out at those responsible for the Belfast riots. They also defended the political efforts to ease tensions over controversial parades.

Political criticism
The defensive comments came following criticism from the PSNI's Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay, after he singled the two leaders out following violence surrounding the July 12 Orange Order marches which left some 82 police officers injured. He said the two leaders had been silent in the run-up to the marches and following the Ardoyne violence.

"We didn't see joined-up, strategic leadership," he said.

Chief Constable Matt Baggott blamed dissident Republicans who are opposed to the peace process for fomenting tensions that reached a height in the Ordoyne area of north Belfast on Monday night. Police came under sustained attack and eventually were forced to use baton rounds and water cannons to contain the rioters.

Mr Baggott declined to single out individual politicians for criticism over the marches issue but has called for a "big debate" on the way forward.

Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness later issued a joint statement condemning the violence and highlighted their efforts to secure a lasting solution to tensions over the controversial marches.

DUP leader Peter Robinson said: "I am disgusted at the outright thuggery and vandalism that has taken place over the course of the last 48 hours.

"There is no excuse and no place for violence in civilised society. Both the deputy First Minister and I have been, and will continue, to work for a resolution of the difficulties around parading."

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said: "Our experience demonstrates that the way to deal with any disputes or contention is through dialogue and agreement.

"There are numerous examples that show this to be the way forward.

"We are currently consulting on legislation that aims to provide a workable framework for dealing with contentious parades."

On criticism from the PSNI, Mr Robinson said: "I am disappointed to hear some of the comments from ACC Finlay and look forward to meeting with the Chief Constable shortly to discuss the events of the last 48 hours and ACC Finlay's unhelpful and unacceptable remarks.

"We must keep our entire focus on defeating those who would seek through violence and destruction to drag us back."

John O'Connor, the former commander of Scotland Yard's flying squad told Channel 4 News that it may not be long until the PSNI has to change to more "pro-active" tactics to prevent a return to the street battles of the past.

John O'Conner said: "Nobody wants to see a return to the street battles of Belfast we saw in the past, even though those provoking the police seem to have exactly this in mind. But it is a real possibility this could happen.

"There's been numerous build-ups to these past few days of violence and it could be setting a trend that we don't want to go back to. One thing we need to know is if these riots were pre-planned and who the ringleaders are or if it was just spontaneous.

"If there are people out there who planned it, then they will be willing to do it again. In that case the only alternative for the PSNI will be to turn to more pro-active methods.

O'Conner told Channel 4 News: "In that I mean things like gathering intelligence on potential groups and individuals, using intelligence on the ground, using wire taps to seek people out. It's not acceptable to have the scenes of violence that we have watched over the past week.

"I think they (PSNI) need to infiltrate the groups behind these riots who are hell bent on violence, if there are any. I think they need to use informants and any intelligence that is coming there way. The key is to use these pro-active measures to pre-empt anymore demonstrations like this continuing."

Asked about the criticism ACC Finlay made about the lack of response from politicians, John O'Connor told Channel 4 News that it is time for the politicians in Northern Ireland to publically back the police.

He said: "I think it does need some sort of political leadership there. We need a statement of intent from the politicians to condemn the violence.

"The police are very exposed, very vulnerable and without the political voice it appears to the outside world that not everyone is pulling in the same direction. It would go a long way for the politicians to show public support for the police.

"One thing in the long-term to consider is how advisable it is to allow the various marches to go on. We've seen that it leads to violence and provokes people to enter the streets.

"But I can see how that maybe not a good idea. You have to think about the protection of democracy and people's human rights. For the police it's a very fine balancing act - they have to maintain an image of authority and control, whilst at the same time having one hand tied behind their backs."

When asked if the police tactics may be different when dealing with "youths" rather than adults, John O'Connor told Channel 4 News: "Another problem for the police is that in many cases they are dealing with youths. This can be difficult.

"You can just imagine the kind of image it would portray if a police officer is caught striking a child, and also the courts would be very reluctant to send youths to detention for these disturbances if a police officer was involved in that way.

"So the situation is almost above the law. The image portrayed around the world for the PSNI is significant - currently they don't have an image. That's because they've been restrained and measured in their actions. But in doing this and using these reserved tactics, there is a big price to pay. And that's what we've seen with 80 or so officers being injured this week.

"Baton rounds being fired into a crowd gives the impression that you are clamping down on the situation, but it doesn't take much for a baton round to rebound and hit a child in the crowd. The perception from that would be very serious for the police."

Belfast riots
Some 82 PSNI officers have been injured over the past few days, with a tota of 55 officers injured on Monday night alone.

On Sunday evening three officers were shot at and received shotgun pellets wounds during the riots. On Monday there were disturbances in a number of areas including parts of Belfast, in Lurgan in County Armagh and in Londonderry where a masked man armed with a handgun shot at a police vehicle. Luckily officers escaped uninjured.

In Lurgan rioters tried to set fire to the Belfast to Dublin train. The driver managed to restart the train and leave the scene before any of the 55 passengers were injured.

Yesterday, the Chief Constable released dramatic footage showing aerial views of officers under attack in Ardoyne.

It showed a line of riot police being repeatedly attacked by masked men armed with iron bars and wooden posts.

Armoured vehicles were also shown being mobbed by the rioters. Mr Baggott said the footage showed his officers had displayed great restraint, despite being forced to use baton rounds.

In the most serious incident a female officer was hit on the head by a concrete block. She remains in hospital where she is said to be stable.

Mr Baggott hinted that the violence this week will cost the force millions of pounds. He implicated dissident Republicans in the riots, which he said included teenagers and children as young as eight.

He branded the riots as a dangerous cocktail of "recreational rioting with a sinister edge".

Mr Baggott said: "The cost of policing last night in that small part of Northern Ireland is the equivalent of a ward in a hospital, it's the equivalent of a primary school, it's the equivalent of neighbourhood policing.

"And it is time to have that big debate about what is really important for the future in Northern Ireland."

Trouble in the north Belfast "flashpoint"
For years and years, there has been a flashpoint known as Ardoyne, in north Belfast, writes Channel 4 News analyst Eamonn Mallie. 

Every year the Orangemen have to walk past at the start of the march and they return. They are strictly going through a Catholic nationalist area. The position of the Catholic nationalist community has always been that you don't march where you're not welcome.

But the Orangemen say they've always marched there and will continue, no matter what happens.

Read more here

Parade season
The vast majority of parades are peaceful on July 12, which is the height of the loyal orders' marching season.

However, in a relatively small number of locations parades continue to cause tensions between rival communities.

Both Robinson and McGuinness were instrumental in the negotiations to devolve policing powers to Northern Ireland earlier this year.

Last week the Orange Order rejected draft proposals which would replace the government-appointed Parades Commission, with a new system to broker local solutions to parade stand-offs.

Leader of nationalist SDLP Margaret Ritchie said rioters had caused "a massive trail of destruction", but she blamed the DUP/SF parade proposals for adding instability.

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