Bullets, kids in Belfast riots

2010-07-14 15:15

Dublin - Northern Ireland police came under live fire during a third straight night of Belfast unrest in scenes that a Catholic priest described on Wednesday as "a Disney theme park for rioting".

The leaders of Northern Ireland's Protestant-Catholic government, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, said they would meet police commander Matt Baggott to discuss ways of quelling the recurring night-time mob violence by Irish nationalists in working-class Catholic areas.

The violence began on 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.

Witnesses and police said a lone gunman fired four to six shots at police lines in north Belfast, possibly aiming at rooftop video cameras on police armoured vehicles that officers use to gather evidence against rioters.

No officers were hit by gunfire, but police said several officers suffered minor injuries - adding to the 82 wounded in more intense rioting on Monday and Tuesday.

A prominent Catholic priest at the centre of the main rioting area, Ardoyne in north Belfast, said he feared that the latest rioting chiefly reflects the collapse of parental responsibility in local households, not any deep-seated political agenda.

Reverend Gary Donegan said violence that continued until the early hours of Wednesday morning in Ardoyne featured rioters aged 8 to 18 - backed by crowds of girls capturing the mayhem on their cell phones for posting on social networking websites.

"Recreational rioting is the term," the 46-year-old priest said. "It was like a Disney theme park for rioting. It was ludicrous."

Alcohol and drug abuse

Donegan said he and local Ardoyne authority figures - among them Irish Republican Army 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.

Donegan said he particularly talked to a 9-year-old boy who had walked 2km that night to reach the rioting zone. "I thought to myself: Where are your parents? Who's supervising you?" he said.

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 the boys riot.

The boys in turn appeared determined to impress the girls with their bravery. He said alcohol and drug abuse fuelled their dangerous behaviour as police doused the crowd with jets from a water cannon.

He said IRA dissidents opposed to Northern Ireland's peace process undoubtedly have played a background role in stoking the past three nights' rioting, which has spread to several other working-class Catholic parts of Belfast and other towns.

But the priest said he and Ardoyne community leaders were openly questioning whether the area's children would have sought street fights with police even if the cited catalyst for the trouble - a small Orange parade near Ardoyne on Monday night - had been barred by police.

"That's the burning question for us," he said. "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."