Children are being singled out for abuse and intimidation by loyalists in north Belfast if they are perceived to be nationalist or Catholic.
Loyalists at Grove Park playing fields this week roared sectarian abuse at soccer players wearing Celtic and Gaelic sports tops in a pre-planned bid to terrify them.
The players, some as young as 16, were forced to leave. Two members of a second soccer club out jogging, including one wearing an Irish sports top, were also targeted.
It comes just days after an anti-GAA banner appeared at the park as well as graffiti.
Paul Magill, chairman of ‘North Belfast United’, said they arrived at the playing fields at about 6.30pm for training.
“As we were walking down to the pitches, groups of men all around the pitches were starting to come out of the tree line,” he said.
“You could tell what was happening. You could tell it was intimidation. We didn’t even get to train. We were there for 10 minutes max. Once our players were walking away, they were shouting ‘taigs’, ‘f*** off round to your own area’.”
Mr Magill said the club has decided not to return to the park for some time to ensure their players’ safety.
“It’s completely backward. I don’t understand why all of a sudden it has been a big issue,” he added.
“North Belfast United has been training there for 17 years in the summer, so it has never been an issue before. We have players in the club who are Protestant and Catholic.
“All of our club has been open to every side of the community. We’re a family club, and we want to make sure we include everybody.”
A representative of Ardoyne-based Shamrock FC said two cousins were jogging around the park, one wearing an Irish top, when they were confronted by the loyalist mob.
One father said he was doing GAA training with his teenage daughter when they were approached and told to leave. The man said his daughter had been identified as Catholic for was wearing shorts from St Enda’s GAA club in Glengormley.
Another loyalist was also seen taking pictures of children playing hurling.
A regular at the park said the series of incidents have been “very intimidating”.
“The fact that people have been chased off with their children, some as young as seven years of age -- I mean no seven-year-old child, whether they’re wearing a GAA top or a Northern Ireland top, they’re no threat to anyone,” he said.
Elsewhere in north Belfast, one loyalist proudly uploaded a social media video of himself shouting ‘Fenian bast**ds’ from a passing car at two youths carrying hurls. It is understood the incident took place in the Ballysillan Road area in recent days.
Another young Catholic girl was also subjected to abuse in the North Circular Road area by loyalists putting up paramilitary flags. The incident took place in the North Circular Road area on Saturday afternoon, June 20.
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly said the issue was straightforward anti-Catholic sectarianism. “We’ve reached out to politicians across north Belfast, we need to work together to de-escalate this,” he said.
And while the PSNI police have denied the issues are related, there are fears that the disappearance on Sunday evening, 21 June, of a 14-year-old boy could somehow be connected. Noah Donohoe, who is from south Belfast, was last seen in and around the Shore Road area of north Belfast, not far from Grove Park.
The PSNI said that they have been responding to a “range of criminal, anti-social and sectarian incidents at locations across north Belfast”, and have urged parents to know the whereabouts of their children.