More than 80 police officers have been injured in clashes with young rioters in one of the worst outbreaks of street violence in Northern Ireland in the last decade, the police said on Tuesday.
“We are going through difficult times,” police chief Matt Baggott said in Belfast. The men and women of the police force had been faced with “attempted murder” during the riots on Monday and Tuesday.
The protests, which spread from Belfast to other parts of the British province, were linked to the traditional July 12 parades of the Protestant Orange Order.
Police said they suspected that dissidents from pro—Irish Catholic groups were behind fermenting the street violence.
Mr. Bagott said the chief objective of his force during the riots, which went on through the night, had been to “protect life.” Police took the unusual step on Tuesday of releasing footage shot from a police helicopter which showed youngsters showering police with missiles and petrol bombs, overturning police vehicles and swinging large wooden sticks at riot shields.
Police fired 70 baton rounds and used water cannon during the riots in Belfast, Londonderry and Lurgan, he said. A female officer attacked was still in hospital after being hit on the head with masonry during the riots in north Belfast.
“I am sad that the police force of Northern Ireland has been put in this position. We are going through very difficult times,” Mr. Baggott said.
“We saw the outpouring of recreational rioting with a sinister edge,” Mr. Baggott said. He called on the parents of “youngsters and teenagers” to stop their offspring from treating riots as “fun.” “You saw last night that you will not have anywhere in the world,” he said about the complex goals of the police operation.
His force had to protect the parades, protect the demonstrators and stop the “communities from getting at each other,” Mr. Baggott said in a reference to the potential threat of direct clashes between Catholics and Protestants.
The police had dealt with “young children who were out there with no parental control lighting petrol bombs, and making sure that none of them were injured,” he said.
“You take the complexity of that and you show me anywhere in the world that can do that like my colleagues in the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland).” Mr. Baggott said a major investigation would be launched into the violence, and people would be brought to justice for what he described as a “completely intolerable” series of events.
Northern Ireland needed to have a “big debate” about what was really important for the future of the province.
It was clear that while the majority of the population wanted peace, the events surrounding the July 12 anniversary had shown that a minority was bent on destroying that peace.
“It is time for the majority not to remain passive and to stand up and be counted,” Mr. Baggott said. Police would introduce a hotline to encourage people to come forward with information.
People had to decide whether they wanted to continue spending “millions of pounds” on police operations or whether they wished that sort of money to go into building hospitals and schools, a clearly angry Mr. Baggott said.
His deputy, Alistair Finlay, had earlier accused the political leaders of Northern Ireland of failing to provide leadership over the tension surrounding the parades.