Northern Ireland news

Police officer left with suspected broken vertebrae after disorder at west Belfast anti-internment bonfire

Ashes at the scene of the anti-internment bonfire at Divis in west Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell
John Monaghan

TWENTY-NINE police officers were left injured - including one with suspected broken vertebrae - after coming under attack at the scene of an anti-internment bonfire in west Belfast.

Three officers required hospital treatment after groups of young people hurled petrol bombs, bins, bricks and other masonry at police during disturbances in Distillery Street off the Grosvenor Road. The three officers were later discharged.

Police officers caught up in the disturbances suffered a range of concussion, neck, back and head injuries.

Images on social media showed a single line of police officers in riot gear retreating as they came under sustained attack from crowds of youths, some launching missiles from just yards away from the officers. The bonfire later went ahead as planned.

The PSNI was in the area to protect contractors who were removing material due to be used for an anti-internment bonfires at the request of a landowner.

Bonfires are traditionally lit in some republican areas to mark the introduction of internment without trial in August 1971.

In a video circulating on social media, a young man appears to be directing the rioters as he films the vicious attacks on police.

Most of the rioters were unmasked as they hurled metal bars and lumps of concrete at retreating officers.

A line of riot squad offices slowly marches backwards towards the Grosvenor Road with armoured Land Rovers at each side of the line.

The young man filming on his phone shouts “Get out of our estate, to f***” and then laughs.

The officers are impassive as the missiles hit their lines during the almost four-minute video.

At one stage a young rioter is seen with a police baton which may have been dropped by an officer.

The scene in Distillery Street was in marked contrast to the New Lodge area of north Belfast, where teenagers agreed not to proceed with their bonfire and all wood was removed.

Several people were seriously injured last August in the New Lodge and dozens were arrested following a ten-hour stand-off between police and young people.

DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster said it was "important to see prosecutions in due course" while Justice Minister Naomi Long added it was "utterly intolerable that police officers have been targeted in this way".

She said a partnership approach between agencies had "allowed the vast majority of contentious bonfires to be removed or significantly reduced in scale without incident".

There was no comment from Sinn Fêin on the Distillery Street disorder, although the party has consistently called for anti-internment bonfires to cease.

Northern Ireland Policing Board chair Doug Garrett said: "Thankfully we have not seen this number of injuries for some time but that is little comfort to the officers who were subjected to this sustained violence and who have been left with a range of serious injuries as a result."

Mark Lindsay, the chair of the Police Federation, said officers were "sick of being a punchbag".

"Some have received quite serious injuries. We're aware of one with potentially two broken vertebrae.

"Those could be career-ending injuries. They could be life-changing injuries.

"They are sick of being a punchbag for a society that has failed to tackle contentious issues."

He added: "The attacks were pre-meditated. Petrol bombs and chunks of masonry don't materialise out of thin air. These confrontations were planned. Those behind this reckless and irresponsible action had a very clear aim of making officers bear the brunt of their hate."

Policing Board member and Alliance MLA John Blair said "the people of the area have been quite clear they do not want these bonfires".

PSNI Superintendent Melanie Jones said "footage from evidence-gathering cameras will be reviewed and all efforts will be made to identify those involved".

"People who choose to engage in criminal and anti-social behaviour must understand it is unacceptable and must stop.

"Parents and guardians have an important obligation to keep young people safe by knowing where they are going and who they are with."

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