Violence ‘leading young people to prison’

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YOUNG people involved in rioting are being “led by the nose” towards prison, the chief constable has warned.

Matt Baggott – who was speaking following another weekend of flag protests and outbreaks of violence – said a “knock on the door was coming” once those involved have been identified.

Nationalist and loyalist crowds pelted each other with missiles in east Belfast on Saturday following loyalist attacks on police in Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus on Friday night.

Saturday was the 40th day of disruption since Belfast City Council voted to fly the Union Flag at the City Hall on designated days only.

Commenting on Saturday’s police operation, Mr Baggott said the main body of protestors – making their way back into east Belfast from the city centre – ignored police advice and ran towards the sectarian interface at the Castlereagh Street/Mountpottinger Road junction.

Police officers were at the opposite end of the Short Strand preparing for demonstrators arriving from the direction of Middlepath Street.

He said his officers had blocked the Queen’s Bridge in an attempt to divert the protestors towards the Middlepath Street route.

However, the vast majority of the protestors moved in the opposite direction along Oxford Street and arrived at the notorious flashpoint within minutes.

Several masked youths from both sides of the divide engaged in hand-to-hand fighting before police restored order.

Some homes in the nationalist Mountpottinger Road area were damaged before the loyalists on the Castlereagh Street side began attacking the lines of PSNI officers.

“Residents should not have been put through that. I’m sorry they were put through that trauma,” the chief constable said.

However, many of those involved in Saturday’s protest claim the homes were only attacked after nationalists threw bottles and other missiles at the returning loyalists.

The chief constable said his commanders were continually revising their tactics to deal with the violence which he described as “intense” at times.

“Our approach has always been to be measured and responsible,” he said.

“We have simply to put public safety first. That has worked very well and continues to work well.”

Mr Baggott added: “What we are keen to do is to keep hospitals and arterial routes open and are continually revising our tactics.

“There is speculation about why doesn’t the PSNI do this. The reality is we make sure that people’s rights for peaceful protest are upheld wherever possible and we preserve our resources for dealing with the most serious outbreaks of violence.”

To date there have been a total of 112 disorder-related arrests and 85 people charged.

During six weeks of sporadic violence, 101 police officers have been injured. One remains in hospital.