DUBLIN (AP) — Political and religious leaders pleaded Wednesday for Catholic teenagers and children engaged in Belfast rioting to stop before one of them is killed and becomes a martyr for Irish Republican Army dissidents.
Their appeals follow three nights of street mayhem in working-class Catholic parts of Belfast that one priest described as “a Disney theme park for rioting.” Children as young as 9 have been attacking static lines of riot police, while other youths cheer them on and take photos for display on social networking sites such as Facebook.
So far 83 police have been wounded, none critically. The heavily armored officers have responded with water cannons and volleys of blunt-nosed plastic bullets capable of cracking ribs and skulls. No serious injuries among rioters have been reported, although injured rioters often avoid hospitalization because they face likely arrest.
“Sadly, those in the front line of public disorder appear to be mostly young people from disadvantaged areas looking to break the boredom of a long and inactive summer,” said Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin.
He warned that IRA dissidents trying to whip up opposition to Northern Ireland’s systems of law and order “are actually hoping that one or more of the rioters will be killed or maimed in their conflict with the police, so that a new generation of martyrs for the cause will inspire others to follow.”
The violence began Sunday night before mass Protestant parades by the Orange Order brotherhood, an annual event that always inflames sectarian tensions between the British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority. The violence spread to several Catholic parts of Belfast, the second-largest city of Londonderry and the towns of Armagh and Lurgan.
A Catholic priest who works in Ardoyne, a traditional IRA power base at the center of this week’s trouble, said local youths want to attack the police regardless of any Orange provocations because they consider it fun.
“Recreational rioting is the term,” said the Rev. Gary Donegan, a 46-year-old priest who has spent the past two nights trying to disarm youths and get them out of the streets.
He said Ardoyne overnight “was like a Disney theme park for rioting.”
The priest said girls, many of them dressed for a night out — “At one stage it looked like a Milan catwalk,” he quipped — had come to watch masked, hooded boys riot. He said boys in turn appeared determined to impress the girls with their bravery as they hurled bricks, bottles and Molotov cocktails against a backdrop of cell phone camera flashes.
Donegan said alcohol and drug abuse fueled their dangerous behavior as police doused the crowd with jets from a water cannon, but did not charge forward in an attempt to arrest anyone.
He said Ardoyne authority figures — among them IRA veterans once involved in directing, not stopping, riots — tried all night to take rocks, bottles and stones out of children’s hands, but the kids wouldn’t listen.
“I saw children facing down what would have been hardened mainstream (IRA) republicans of yesteryear who are now full weight behind the peace process, and they were taking (abuse) from these young people who were literally out of control,” he said.
Over the past three nights, evidence of dissident IRA involvement has been apparent. Police have come under live fire from handguns and shotguns at least three times, homemade grenades and pipe bombs have been thrown, and a Belfast-to-Dublin passenger train with 55 passengers narrowly escaped being set on fire.
In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron lauded the Police Service of Northern Ireland for exercising restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.
“Anyone watching the pictures on our television screens last night could see how brave, how restrained they were in the way they dealt with completely unacceptable behavior,” he told the House of Commons.
Many Belfast residents are calling for more aggressive tactics to scatter mobs and arrest the most prominent hooligans.
“I’m baffled by it all. I just want to know why people don’t get arrested,” said the father of a policewoman who remained in hospital Wednesday two days after a cement block was dropped on her head from an Ardoyne store’s rooftop. The man, identified only as Maurice, spoke to BBC Radio Ulster in Belfast on condition he not be fully identified.
Amateur and police video footage has shown that rioters laughed, mocked and pelted police and paramedics who came to the policewoman’s aid. Maurice said police should have cleared rioters from the roofs of those Ardoyne shops hours before she was hit.
“The laughing and jeering … was just unbelievable,” the man told the BBC.
But police commanders insist their defensive approach is the best way to minimize civilian casualties, keep mobs hemmed in, and prevent any direct Catholic-Protestant street fights.
Belfast Assistant Chief Constable Duncan McCausland said it would have been too dangerous to use “snatch squads” of officers to charge out of police lines into crowds of rioters. He said the officers would have been at risk of being surrounded or shot at close range by IRA dissidents.
McCausland said detectives were scouring hundreds of hours of police videotapes to identify rioters. “There will be significant arrests in the forthcoming days. Individuals will not go scot-free,” he vowed.
Detectives have already used such footage, McCausland said, to pinpoint the identity of the policewoman’s attacker.
“Wherever he is in Northern Ireland, he can sit and be worried. We will be coming for him,” McCausland said.