The First Minister has described it as “disturbing” that a children’s Orange parade dissolved into chaos amid confrontations between the police and bandsmen.
The organiser of the Junior Orange march said that some children were still suffering from the after-effects of police CS gas on Wednesday, following the disturbance the previous evening on south Belfast’s Ormeau Road.
The office of the Police Ombudsman said that, as of close of business on Wednesday, it had received “three or four” complaints about the incident – but that more could be expected.
Organiser Noel Liggett, county secretary of the Junior Orange, blamed “a lack of common sense” on the part of one police officer for sparking the incident, and called for any witnesses to go to the ombudsman.
The PSNI meanwhile issued a statement saying bandsmen had ignored police instructions and that its officers had then come under attack – stressing that officers would not randomly attack a parade.
Following the disturbance, a man – aged 26 – was charged with two counts of assault on police and one of disorderly behaviour, and is due to appear at Belfast Magistrates’ Court on April 26.
Arlene Foster said: “The events on the Ormeau Road are disturbing and it is vital the facts are established.
“I have spoken to the Chief Constable and outlined my concerns about the reports of events that unfolded.”
She pledged that the party will continue to pursue the matter.
Party colleague Ian Paisley Junior said the use of CS gas was “a clear overreaction” whilst Rodney McCune, UUP south Belfast Assembly candidate and criminal barrister, said: “Police action at the parade has raised serious questions about policing judgement.”
Mr Liggett, a 52-year-old south Belfast man, said that the parade had been merely a few hundred yards from its final destination when the incident occurred, and that if the police had been patient for just a few more minutes the fiasco would have been avoided.
The parade had been in Carrickfergus earlier, and had just returned to the city for a short march to conclude the day.
He said that there were just under 100 adults present and about 25 Junior Orange boys and girls – with an average age of the children being about seven or eight-years-old.
Two loyalist bands were involved in the march – Ballybeen YCV Flute Band, and South Belfast Young Conquerors Flute Band.
The marchers had just emerged from the Annadale area in south Belfast onto the main Ormeau Road, and were heading to the Orange Hall near the Pavilion bar at roughly 5pm.
He estimated that the parade was a maximum of about 300 yards (about 900 feet) away when an altercation began, initially involving just a single officer.
“I just don’t understand his reasoning. We were so close to the Orange Hall,” he said.
“We’ve a very good working understanding with police... They know to come to me and ask me to resolve the issue, and I’m very disappointed that didn’t happen.”
He did not witness the trouble unfolding himself because he was at the back of the parade, but said he understands an officer had initially pushed marchers in a bid to move them towards the middle the road and away from parked cars – displaying “a lack of common sense”.
He estimated that nine children – four boys and five girls – suffered impacts of CS gas in the melee that followed.
They were left with “swollen eyes, swollen lips” in the immediate wake of the incident.
Although the Belfast health trust said that no-one – adult or child – had been admitted in relation to CS gas, Mr Liggett said two girls were taken to casualty in the city and had been given anti-histamines.
“They’re still suffering, but hopefully they’re on the road to recovery,” he said.