Northern Ireland news

Children's football team attacked at interface pitches

Girdwood Community Hub in north Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell

A FOOTBALL club has said threats and intimidation may force it to stop using pitches on an interface.

Grove United from north Belfast said it needed to put the safety of its young players first.

Boys and girls aged 9-15 were training at Girdwood Community Hub on Wednesday night when they were confronted by up to 30 youths.

It is understood the group gathered around the perimeter and set fireworks off, some landing on the pitch.

Children were "left in tears".

Girdwood Community Hub stands on a 14-acre north Belfast site formerly occupied by the army.

The £11.7 million project opened after a decade of controversy about what should be done with the former barracks, which straddles a historically bitter interface.

There was pressure for the site to be given to social housing, which prompted disputes over whether it would be for the unionist or nationalist community.

John Haddock, Grove United's head of youth development, said the club had used the Girdwood pitch for three years.

"The scale of threats and intimidation means it is unclear if we can continue using this facility," he said.

"Kids' safety has to be paramount and a large number of parents have also expressed very strong concerns."

DUP assembly member William Humphrey said the incident was "unacceptable".

"There were incidents last year of threats and intimidation against youth teams from Grove United, but this has been described by coaches and parents as the worst ever," he said.

"Grove United had four youth teams training there, both boys and girls from ages 9 to 15. It was very intimidating for the young players, some of whom were in tears, and for many parents who have subsequently contacted our offices."

Mr Humphrey said previous threats against U16 players meant that team was refusing to return to Girdwood.

"This is totally unacceptable. Girdwood should be a shared facility and needs to have adequate security arrangements to counteract those intent on engaging in blatant anti-social and sectarian intimidation."

Police attended the scene and together with community workers encouraged the youths to leave. Patrols returned over the following three hours after opposing crowds of youths gathered. Stones and fireworks were thrown at officers but there were no reports of any injuries and no arrests were made.

"Parents and guardians need to have an active role in preventing young people from becoming involved or caught up in these activities. Know where your children are, who they are with, what they are doing and what they are arranging on their social media accounts," a police spokesman an said.

"We do not want to criminalise young people however if offences are identified we will deal with these robustly."

Belfast City Council said it was working alongside partners and police "to investigate the matter further".

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