BELFAST — Children as young as nine joined riots in Northern Ireland as shots were fired at police in a third night of violence blamed on dissident republicans in the flashpoint province.
Police vowed to make “significant arrests” after hundreds of people clashed with officers in Belfast overnight Tuesday following the peak of the Protestant marching season, a traditional trigger for sectarian tensions.
First Minister Peter Robinson voiced support for the way officers had handled the clashes in Ardoyne, north Belfast, after meeting Northern Ireland police chief Matt Baggott to discuss the situation.
Robinson, of the Protestant, pro-British Democratic Unionists, said he had “nothing but the highest admiration for the way the police have coped with the most difficult of circumstances”.
His deputy, Martin McGuinness of Catholic republicans Sinn Fein, who want a united Ireland, described the unrest as “a setback against the huge progress we have made over the course of recent times”.
Authorities are blaming a small group of troublemakers for the violence, with Baggott describing trouble earlier this week as “recreational rioting with a sinister edge.”
Witnesses also told of how young children got involved.
“I was directly confronted by a nine-year-old last night,” Father Gary Donegan, a local priest, told BBC radio Wednesday, saying he had “physically pulled stones out of children’s hands.”
“At one stage, it looked like the Milan catwalk,” Donegan added. “It was ridiculous. There were girls out with little parasols… it was a bit like a Eurodisney theme park for rioting.”
Children had never been involved in violence even at the height of Northern Ireland’s civil unrest known as the Troubles in the 1970s and 1980s, he said.
Baggott has also spoken of children as young as eight being involved while one of his assistants, Duncan McCausland, said youngsters were used as shields by “sinister elements” organising the violence.
“There will be significant arrests in the forthcoming days — individuals will not go scot free,” McCausland vowed.
Local Sinn Fein councillor Gerard McCabe described the culprits as “an anti-social group hell bent on torturing the community.”
There were reports of four to six shots being fired at police in mainly Catholic Ardoyne which police are investigating, while rioters also threw petrol bombs, stones and missiles.
Police deployed water cannon in response but reported no new injuries to officers, although 82 have been hurt in clashes on previous days, including a female officer who had a concrete block dropped on her.
The father of the unnamed policewoman said: “I just can’t believe people. The country’s moving forward as everybody thinks, but it makes you think, you know, is it? Is it moving forward? Is there no end to this?”
Police tactics were criticised as too cautious by former Scotland Yard commander John O’Connor, who said they should have gone in to “take out the ringleaders”.
McCausland responded by saying such moves would put officers at greater risk from “sinister elements” and O’Connor later apologised.
Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the “unacceptable” violence but also praised the police.
“I think anyone who watched what they did… knows that they acted with real restraint in what they did,” he said in parliament.
Unrest often flares in Northern Ireland’s marching season as Protestants — in favour of the province remaining part of the United Kingdom — pass through areas mainly populated by Catholics, who are generally in favour of joining the Republic of Ireland.
Monday, which saw the worst recent violence, was July 12, the climax of the marching calendar.
The date sees Protestants mark Prince William of Orange’s victory over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.