A leading Orange Order member has welcomed a police apology for children being caught up in the spraying of CS incapacitant at a bandsman, but said the incident was a serious setback for relations with the unionist/loyalist community.
County chaplain Rev Mervyn Gibson was commenting after film footage emerged of an officer dismounting from a motorcycle and confronting members of the South Belfast Young Conquerors band on Belfast’s Ormeau Road.
The affected bandsman is seen on the video dropping to his knees as the police officer backs away towards his motorcycle.
Reports of the incident, which took place around 5.15pm on Tuesday as the band and a local lodge returned from the Junior Orange event in Carrickfergus, sparked an outcry on social media.
First minister Arlene Foster was among the unionist representatives expressing concern at claims the police had over-reacted on becoming concerned that band members were too close to vehicles.
On Wednesday, Chief Superintendent Chris Noble said the CS spray “was directed only on the people attacking them,” and added: “Any subsequent contact any children or young people had with CS spray particles is deeply regretted.”
The video footage passed to UTV also showed a police officer striking a band member with his baton during a confrontation in the aftermath of the CS spray incident.
Rev Gibson said: “It will set back what people were hoping were improving relationships with the unionist community.”
However, Rev Gibson added: “The tone that [county secretary of the Junior Orange] Noel Liggett set in his media interviews - that he doesn’t want it to affect relations - I think that provides us all with hope, but the police need to listen carefully to that.
“They need to be prepared to move forward, and to heal wounds, and address the issues that have arisen as a result of the incident last night (Tuesday).
“If a mistake was made, let them say a mistake was made. Let’s come out and say it openly if that was the case.”
Commenting on claims from many unionists that police take a more robust approach with dealing with loyalist events - particularly in contrast to how a low-key approach was evident at some republican Easter Rising parades - Rev Gibson said: “As an Orangeman I have been subjected to a heavy police presence at parades, where cameras were forced in your face, and you couldn’t walk two feet without being photographed by a policeman.
“That has been toned down, after representation, because there was no need for it. Now you seen situations in Lurgan where there doesn’t appear to be a policeman and there doesn’t appear to be the [PSNI] evidence gathering teams that they would deploy against the unionist community.”
Rev Gibson said it was now up to the unionist members of the Policing Board to address those issues in the coming weeks.
“They need to find out why that is not the case,” he added.