Out of control: A crowd of young people look on as masked rioters attack police at Cloughfern Corner on Friday night. INNT 03-033-FP
Out of control: A crowd of young people look on as masked rioters attack police at Cloughfern Corner on Friday night. INNT 03-033-FP

TWO of Newtownabbey’s most senior police officers have claimed that Friday night’s civil unrest in Whiteabbey was “pre-planned”.

Four police officers were injured after they came under attack from rioters throwing stones, bottles and petrol bombs during a flag protest at Cloughfern Corner.

Protest organisers claim the event was “hijacked” by individuals intent on causing trouble, and PSNI Area Commander Stephen Reid and Neighbourhood Inspector Alan McKeown believe the violence was organised.

Chief Inspector Reid and Inspector McKeown rubbished suggestions that the presence of PSNI officers at the flag protest had inflamed tensions and led to the violence.

A number of social networking sites run by flag protest organisers have carried claims that police aggression and heavy handed tactics have led to recent serious public disorder. However, in an interview with the Times this week, both men stressed that that version of events simply isn’t true.

They confirmed that local Neighbourhood Policing Team officers are deployed to protests to ensure that demonstrations are peaceful and lawful, and that Tactical Support Group officers (riot police) are only called in to areas if trouble flares.

There have been several incidents of serious public disorder across Newtownabbey since the flag protests began at the start of December, and police have confirmed that children as young as 12 and 13 have been actively involved in the trouble.

Officers have come under attack from rioters throwing stones, bottles, fireworks, petrol bombs and other missiles such as lead weights and golf balls. Police vehicles have been damaged and a number of officers seriously injured. The cost of the policing operations hasn’t yet been worked out, but Inspector McKeown said “the financial cost must be phenomenal”.

Eleven individuals, mainly young people aged in their teens and 20s, have so far been arrested.

Inspector McKeown said that he and two other Neighbourhood Officers had been present at Cloughfern Corner on Friday evening.

“The only officers at the roundabout (Cloughfern) were three officers in ordinary police uniform in fluorescent jackets who were there to keep an eye on people from a road safety point of view, because when we have people coming onto the road then there are issues.”

Inspector McKeown said that the trouble, which started before the flag protest even started, had been “pre-planned.”

“Myself and the two others officers came under a heavy barrage of bottles and bricks and petrol bombs, so obviously we had to withdraw further back down Station Road and that’s when additional resources were brought into the area, some 25 minutes after the protest started and purely based on the disorder that had broken out. There was nothing there for them to fight with and nothing for them to be antagonised about.”

He stressed that he and the other two officers had been there “to try and protect property, the environment and the community structure” and had been attacked by around 30 rioters, who were cheered on by a crowd of more than 200 people.

Referring to an earlier protest at nearby O’Neill Road on January 4, following which a local convenience store was looted and police came under attack from yobs throwing missiles, Chief Inspector Reid said: “We were there to provide a multitude of different roles. We have an obligation to look after the interests of people who want to peacefully and lawfully protest, to look after the interests of the motoring public and to look after properties and commercial premises.”

Chief Inspector Reid appealed to local communities, particularly parents, to support the efforts of the police, by discouraging young people from coming out onto the streets to cause trouble. He also urged anyone with information about individuals involved in recent public disorder to contact police or the Crimestoppers charity.

See more stories and reaction in this week’s Times...