A 12-year-old boy caught up in a controversial police CS spray incident has spoken publicly about the effect it has had on him.
Christian King, a member of South Belfast Young Conquerors flute band, gave his version of how events unfolded on the Ormeau Road when an officer deployed the incapacitation spray as trouble flared at the conclusion of a junior loyal order parade.
See video interview here.
The schoolboy gave his account as Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable George Hamilton said he stood by the policing operation on Tuesday night.
He rejected any suggestion that his organisation treats loyalists more harshly than republicans.
However, Mr Hamilton said the PSNI would not argue if shortcomings were identified by the on-going investigation into the incident by independent complaints watchdog, the NI Police Ombudsman.
Commanders have insisted the spray was only directed at adults attacking police but have expressed “deep regret” that it inadvertently came into contact with children taking part in the parade.
Christian, flanked by his father George, said an officer reached for the spray and “sprayed it everywhere”.
“It hit me in the face and eyes,” he said.
“It started stinging and burning so if I tried to open them it really hurt.”
A police officer came over and advised him not to put water in his eyes, as that could make it worse.
He said the sensation lasted for about 25 minutes.
Asked how he is now, he said: “I’m ok, but often when I blink, my eyes hurt.”
His father condemned the actions of the officer involved but insisted he still supported the PSNI (see sidebar).
“I am in the band 23 years and nothing like that has ever happened,” said Mr King.
“I wouldn’t want it to happen to any other parent, no matter what [part of the] divide they come from.”
Police said two officers were injured and damage was caused to a police motorcycle when adults taking part in the parade attacked them.
The trouble apparently developed when an officer tried to stop bandsmen brushing up against and damaging parked cars.
Parade organisers claim police over-reacted and criticised the use of CS spray in an area where children were present.
A 26-year-old man arrested at the scene has been charged with disorderly behaviour and two counts of assaulting police.
A policeman apparently photographed at the event has been subject to a wave of online abuse, with his name and address published on one site.
The online posting has been widely condemned by police and politicians alike.
Mr Hamilton said publishing the officer’s details on the internet was “mad and unacceptable”.
In terms of the incident, the chief constable said he stood by the PSNI operation.
But he added: “If things come out of the Ormeau Road incident, or any other incident, that we need to think about or do differently then we won’t argue about that, we won’t be defensive - but let the ombudsman do his job.”
The episode has developed into a political row and prompted claims from some unionists of a “two tier” policing approach to loyalist and republican communities.
They have contrasted the use of CS spray at a lawfully organised junior loyal order parade with the lack of arrests at a number of illegal weekend republican parades in Northern Ireland, some of which involved masked men in paramilitary style clothing.
PSNI chiefs insisted their tactics depend on the circumstances and context of each individual operation, not on the community involved.
The Police Federation, the officers’ representative body, branded the allegations of bias as “inflammatory” and accused some politicians of using the PSNI as a “political football” ahead of May’s Assembly election.
Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader Billy Hutchinson, who facilitated Christian and his father’s public appearance at an event in Belfast, insisted the police had questions to answer.
“We are close to reaching a tipping point in the crisis of confidence in police, in terms of how they deal with incidents like this,” he said.
Mr Hamilton rejected the allegations of two tier policing.
“We deliver policing in a hugely dynamic and politically charged environment. That’s what’s different, I guess, about policing in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“We are well used to allegations of two tier policing and partisan policing and all of that.
“I don’t take any confidence from it, but we do seem to get it (those allegations) at different times, in pretty much equal measure, from all sides - that doesn’t mean we are getting it right, it’s just a statement of fact.”