THREE people have been charged after a violent protest forced the postponement of a match between Crusaders and Cliftonville.
Saturday's eagerly anticipated clash between the Irish League's top two sides was called off by the clubs after loyalists attacked police outside Crusaders' home ground, Seaview, on Shore Road in north Belfast.
Two men, aged 47 and 48, and a 21-year-old woman have been charged with public-order offences.
Police said officers were attacked after moving a "small group of people" who had been involved in a white-line protest.
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and culture, arts and leisure minister Caral Ni Chuilin were among those who criticised the protesters for ruining a day of sport.
However, DUP representatives made no comment on the protest and accused police of being heavy-handed in their response.
Among the protesters was controversial victims campaigner and leading Ulster People's Forum figure Willie Frazer. Forum chairman Jamie Bryson claimed the demonstration had not been organised by the group and had "nothing to do with Union flag protests".
Despite many protesters being draped in Union flags, Mr Bryson said the demonstration aimed to address the concerns of "local residents" who had come "under attack" from Clifton-ville supporters at previous games.
A statement issued on behalf of DUP North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds and MLA Nelson McCausland said one of the party's councillors had been struck by police amid the disorder. It described the postponement of the match as "deeply regrettable".
The statement said party representatives had been present "because of the previous history of difficulties caused by a small number of Cliftonville fans walking down Skegoneill Avenue behaving badly and offensively towards local residents".
The DUP members claimed that police had used "heavy-handed tactics and needless aggression".
DUP councillor Guy Spence said: "When police were pushing people back I was struck by a police baton as I tried to lift a lady, who had fallen, back onto her feet. I was also struck by one police officer as I tried to speak to the police inspector after the arrest of a local community worker."
Police said they asked protesters to move after 40 minutes to allow fans to enter the stadium.
"Despite intensive efforts by police and football officials to negotiate a peaceful outcome, the protest did not move and as a consequence police had to move the protest to ensure the safety of fans and allow the match to proceed," a statement read.
"As they did so a number of protesters began to violently resist the police and officers were attacked with bottles and other missiles."
Ms Villiers said it was "regrettable that an afternoon of sport was ruined by violent protests".
"These protests must come off the streets and allow political leaders to work together towards a resolution," she said.
Ms Ni Chuilin said it was "particularly disappointing" that the game had been called off "for reasons totally unconnected with sport".
"The flag protest which forced the cancellation of this match has nothing to do with football,'' she said.
SDLP councillor Pat Convery said "all political parties" must come together to find a solution to ensure future games could pass off without incident.
The three people charged are due in court next month accused of disorderly behaviour and assault on police.
The 47-year-old man is also charged with acting provocatively. ■ TUG OF WAR: Main picture, a police dog tackles a protester outside Seaview in north Belfast on Saturday afternoon. Below, fans wait to leave the ground as the match between Crusaders and Cliftonville is postponed
PICTURES: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye (main picture)
and Arthur Allison/Pacemaker