30/11/2009

Violence Echoes Past Policing Problems

Street violence at the weekend has been roundly condemned – and blamed on loyalists for deliberately fermenting the trouble, which was said to be organised with text messages.

In a chilling reminder of a similar – deadly - confrontation with nationalists in Coleraine earlier this year, the disturbances in Portadown saw police being attacked by what was described as a "carefully-orchestrated loyalist mob".

This also underlines the public inquiry being held into an attack by a loyalist mob in Portadown in 1997 in which an innocent man, Robert Hamill, was killed - allegedly as members of the RUC nearby failed to intervene.

Last night, local SDLP assembly member, Dolores Kelly, said a large crowd gathered on Sunday in the Mandeville Street and West Street area of the town.

She spoke out after ten police officers sustained injuries and a number of vehicles were also damaged and claimed plans were known weeks ago and it "should have been stopped".

A police spokeswoman played it down and said appropriate resources were in place for the incident which was described as "sporadic" – but lasted for about three hours.

A 19-year-old man is to appear in court next month charged with assault on police and public order offences, while a 31-year-old was released yesterday pending further inquiries after the Portadown violence.

However, Mrs Kelly told the BBC: "Two weeks ago we warned that texts were circulating calling on all loyalists to gather for a show of force in the centre of the town at pub closing time.

"This was incredibly stupid, incredibly provocative and the purpose was made absolutely clear in the texts which we forwarded to the media - to intimidate nationalists and lay claim to ownership of the town centre.

"As far as I have heard, the police were prepared and were able to move the mob back and generally control the situation. But the fundamental point is that a very substantial group of people are determined to deny access to the town centre for all."
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The Irish News reported on 19 November that messages were circulating urging loyalists to gather on a given weekend night "to show republicans that we will not tolerate their behaviour or presence in our area".

The PSNI spokeswoman said they were indeed aware of the text messages being circulated but reinforced that appropriate resources had been put in place to deal with the illegal gathering and said police were "working with the public and community representatives to resolve the situation".

However, behind the scenes are past problems of resourcing, specifically the death of a Coleraine community worker at the hands of a similar loyalist mob last Spring.

Also on a Sunday, it saw local police being forced to offer only 'first aid' as the numbers of loyalists mobilised dwarfed the available PSNI resources.

They were forced to bring Mobile Support Units over 80 miles from Newry in south Down to deal with the deadly Coleraine violence – effectively allowing the loyalist mob free rein in the Bannside town as local police couldn't cope.

In May this year, Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay said a Coleraine mob went on "the rampage", but defended their response to the incident: "Two neighbourhood police officers moved to make an initial arrest of one of the main aggressors, but such was the hostility of the crowd that they had to withdraw and move to rendering first aid," he said.

In Coleraine too, police were aware of the potential for disturbances in advance across the area because of a football match and trouble which flared after Irish tricolours were flown from lampposts.

See: Robert Hamill Inquiry Opens Public Sessions

See: Youth Arrested Over Coleraine Murder

See: Orde Defends Police Officers Holding Talks With Loyalists On Day Of Coleraine Murder

(BMcC/KMcA)

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