Northern Ireland news

Children at north Belfast football club targeted in attempted online grooming case

A mural celebrating St Patrick's Football Club on the New Lodge Road in north Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell
Marie Louise McConville

A man has been arrested in England as part of an investigation into alleged online grooming of children from a north Belfast football club.

Officers from the National Crime Agency (NCA) yesterday began visiting homes of those allegedly targeted on social media by a man posing as a 14-year-old girl.

It is claimed some children were asked on Facebook and Instagram to send "inappropriate" photos.

Patrick Downey, chairman of St Patrick's Football Club in the New Lodge area, told The Irish News it became aware of the investigation after being contacted by a parent.

"We got a phone call from a parent, who said police arrived at the door to inform them their son was one of a number of kids out of the club who had been groomed by this man posing as a 14-year-old girl and asking them to send photos," he said.

"She said the police told her to let the club know to be aware of it and let parents be aware."

Mr Downey said the club - whose boy and girl members range in age from four to 17 - was "disgusted and devastated" by the news.

He also revealed that St Patrick's is "not the only club in Northern Ireland" whose children may have been targeted.

"Our priority is our children," he said.

"Every single coach and committee member has undergone safeguarding training but that only gives us so much information. We are only volunteers. We individually talk to our teams about the dangers."

A spokeswoman for the National Crime Agency last night said: "I can confirm that a man was arrested in England as part of this investigation and has since been released on bail. As it’s an ongoing investigation, no further details are available."

The PSNI said: "Officers from PSNI Child Internet Protection Team are providing assistance to officers from the National Crime Agency as they carry out their enquiries into an ongoing operation."

Mr Downey said the club would be holding an emergency meeting tonight to "see what steps we need to take from here on in".

He said police would be delivering courses but also appealed to parents to check their children's online activity.

"For this to happen it is shocking, but it gives us a wake-up call."

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