Two people arrested after stabbings near Belfast bonfire

PSNI earlier retreated from confrontation at estate over concerns for innocent bystanders

 

Two men have been arrested in Belfast in connection with a number of reported stabbings in the New Lodge area, where a large bonfire to mark the anniversary of internment without trial took place.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said an 18-year-old man was stabbed in the back in the vicinity of the bonfire and was taken to hospital, where it is understood he remains in critical condition.

A second man (39) was also hospitalised after sustaining stab wounds to his arm and hip. His condition is not thought to be life-threatening.

The two men arrested are aged 28 and 21. The PSNI said the two men were detained early on Friday morning.

Chief inspector Kelly Moore said “We are aware of footage circulating on social media and this will be examined as part of the wider investigation. I would encourage anyone who was in the area and who can assist the investigation to please make contact with us by calling 101, quoting reference 1818 08/08/19.”

Alternatively, information can also be provided anonymously to the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

Set alight

Large crowds gathered on Thursday night to watch the bonfire being set alight. The bonfire marked the anniversary of the introduction of the controversial policy of internment without trial of suspected republicans in 1971.

Police retreated from a confrontation over concerns innocent bystanders could be hurt, a senior commander has said.

Violence at the scene had earlier left three police officers injured. That disturbance was probably orchestrated by dissident republicans, according to PSNI assistant chief constable Alan Todd.

He regretted the failure of an operation involving more than 150 officers to allow contractors to remove the wooden pallet pyre in the nationalist estate.

Young people climbed on top of the pile in triumph and the police operation ended with vehicles leaving the estate under a hail of missiles.

The PSNI said six petrol bombs had been recovered and a 13-year-old youth has been arrested on suspicion of riotous and disorderly behaviour.

Mr Todd said: “It is a question for me as a police commander.

“Am I going to continue ramping up the use of police force against a wider community with innocent members present?

“Including water cannon, including the potential for AEPs, commonly known as plastic bullets in parlance in the area.

“Am I prepared to do that merely to save face on behalf of the organisation and sacrifice public safety as a result?

“The answer is, no I am not.”

The withdrawal followed a stand-off with republican youths over the bonfire marking the introduction of internment without trial during the Troubles. Missiles and metal fencing were hurled at officers.

Police moved in early on Thursday to facilitate contractors tasked with removing the structure.

The officers were injured during sporadic bouts of violence.

The estate was later barricaded using metal fencing following the police retreat.

The bonfire was built on land owned by Northern Ireland’s department for infrastructure.

The housing executive urged residents to leave the nearby Oisin and Fianna tower blocks as they cannot guarantee their safety, due to the proximity of the blaze.

Republicans

Referencing the murder of journalist Lyra McKee by dissident republicans in Derry earlier this year during disturbances, Mr Todd said police did “not need to learn the lesson” of the risk to innocent bystanders.

Mr Todd said a significant number of women and children in the crowd were being used as human shields.

The senior commander said he had an obligation to minimise the use of force and the risk to public safety.

“I regrettably have had to take a decision today that the risks of continuing the operation to remove a bonfire were outweighed by the risks that operation would then pose to the wider community, to women and children and others there present.

“That is a matter of regret to me that we were not successful in the objective of the operation but it is nonetheless a responsible, professional policing decision taken within the law and taken with very little room for other decisions to be made.”

Mark Lindsay, chair of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, said officers trying to protect the community and lawful agencies are once again caught in the middle and in the firing line.

“This behaviour is contrary to the overwhelming wishes of the people of New Lodge who do not want this bonfire or their area hijacked by young thugs.”

Operation Demetrius in 1971 saw hundreds arrested across the region on suspicion of being involved with paramilitary groups.

The vast majority arrested were nationalists, although a significant number of them had no connection with the IRA.

The anniversary has traditionally been marked by many from the nationalist and republican tradition with bonfires, although recent years have seen a move away from pyres towards community-based diversionary activities.–PA