An attempt by the PSNI police to draw nationalist youths into conflict near a tense west Belfast interface failed tonight thanks to the efforts of community leaders.
A tense but calm group of residents had gathered on the Springfield Road this Thursday evening to keep watch following an outbreak of heavy loyalist rioting which threatened to break through into nationalist estates on Wednesday.
After launching waves of intense petrol bomb attacks at the peace line before smashing through the steel barricades on Lanark Way with burning vehicles, a number of nationalists were taken to hospital with injuries caused by objects thrown from the loyalist side.
In an orgy of violence, loyalist paramilitaries also set fire to a hijacked bus and attacked a press photographer. Fearful of a potential rerun tonight, Springfield residents were shocked to instead face a confrontation by the PSNI from the other direction.
As dusk fell at 8pm, a battalion of armoured vehicles advanced on nationalist residents in a highly intimidatory manner, flanked by riot police in full body armour and attack dogs.
They succeeded in drawing a response from a group of stone-throwing teenagers who dispersed when the PSNI deployed their dogs. Water cannon were then directed at the youths who dodged the jets as one or two fireworks were thrown.
Under cover of dark, the PSNI mounted charges and snatch operations against the small number of republican youths who remained on the scene, but without major incident.
The situation could have ended more seriously were it not for a broad-based effort to discourage young nationalists from responding to the provocation.
The PSNI’s heavy-handed actions were in complete contrast to their inaction as the same community was being terrorised by loyalist paramilitaries the night before. The loyalist attack on the interface was intended to draw nationalists into a sectarian conflict, and tonight the PSNI appeared engaged in a similar agenda.
However, nationalist commentators say they believe the attempt to ‘take on’ republican youths in west Belfast was intended only to boost the reputation of PSNI Chief Simon Byrne among unionists. Both DUP leader Arlene Foster and UUP leader Steve Aiken have demanded his resignation following the revelation that Byrne had discussed arrangements with Sinn Fein ahead of the high-profile funeral of the late IRA leader Bobby Storey last June.
Amid continuing rumours that loyalist paramilitaries are planning to attack nationalist areas in coming days, the PSNI’s actions on the Springfield Road tonight only narrowly avoided serious violence. They came despite Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill having earlier offered her full support to the PSNI.
“This morning the Sinn Féin leadership met with the PSNI Chief Constable to get an update on the situation, and to offer our support to both him and his officers,” she said in a statement.
“Today we must stand united in appealing to all concerned to refrain from further threats or use of violence and call on those directing young people to engage in violence to stop.
“There is room for everyone in the political process, but there is no room in society whatsoever for those who are armed and illegal and who should disband.”
Meanwhile, Republican Sinn Fein have condemned the actions of the PSNI. They said the Crown Forces had given loyalists “a free shot” at attacking nationalists on Wednesday and had done nothing to prevent attacks on people and homes.
“Once again the RUC/PSNI have shown their true colours allowing the loyalist community to run amok and cause havoc,” they said.
They said that weapons such as plastic bullets and water cannon were being reserved by the PSNI for use against nationalists. “The Crown Forces won’t use such force on loyalist rioters as half of them are probably uncles and nephews to them.”