Stormont’s First Minister has rejected claims of two tier policing of loyalist and republican communities in Northern Ireland.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said it was important commanders addressed public concerns about how recent operations involving the respective traditions were handled, but she made clear she did not believe officers treated people from different backgrounds in different ways.
A number of fellow unionist politicians have questioned whether the PSNI is more reluctant to act against republicans than loyalists following incidents over the Easter period.
They have contrasted the police use of CS spray in a disturbance at a junior loyal order parade in Belfast on Tuesday evening with the lack of arrests at a number of illegal republican parades, some involving masked men in paramilitary style clothing. PSNI chiefs have insisted their tactics depend on the circumstances of each individual operation, not on the community involved.
The Police Federation, the officers’ representative body, has branded the criticism and allegations of bias as “inflammatory” and accused some politicians of using the PSNI as a “political football” ahead of May’s Assembly election.
Mrs Foster said it was important the independent complaints watchdog, the Police Ombudsman, established the facts of the CS spray use on the Ormeau Road.
“I think the police have a very, very difficult job to do but I do think it is right that as politicians we ask questions, it would be wrong if we weren’t able to ask questions of our police service, in return they answer those questions and indeed they are monitored by the ombudsman,” she said.
In an interview with the BBC on Thursday, she added: “So I don’t think there is a two tier policing system, but I think there are concerns out there and therefore for the police, and for myself, we need to get to the bottom of those issues.”
Police have said two officers were injured when adult participants in Tuesday’s parade attacked them on the Ormeau Road.
Parade organisers claim police over-reacted and criticised the use of CS spray in an area where children were present. They have said a number of children developed swollen lips and eyes after coming into contact with the spray.
Commanders expressed “deep regret” that children may have been inadvertently affected by the spray. A policeman photographed at the event has been subject to a wave of online abuse, with his name and address published on one site.
The Police Federation has slammed the trolls behind the abuse, characterising it as “anarchic baying for blood”.
Federation chair Mark Lindsay said: “The comments posted on social media are scurrilous and despicable.”
The PSNI has launched an investigation into some of the posted comments.
Meanwhile, TUV leader Jim Allister has said video footage of the police response to Tuesday night’s minor disturbance on the Ormeau Road “has done nothing to allay concerns” within the unionist community.
Mr Allister said: “The footage we have seen to date would appear to substantiate claims that the PSNI response was grossly disproportionate to anything the officer may have seen.
“Coming as it did just days after masked men were permitted to parade openly in our streets to celebrate the Easter Rising, unionists throughout Northern Ireland are asking serious questions of the PSNI.”
Mr Allister added: “It seems CS gas and batons can be used on people in a Junior Orange parade but there is a kid glove approach when it comes to masked republicans.”