Monday, September 12, 2005

The PSNI has been criticized after it described loyalist rush-hour protests that have brought areas of Belfast to a standstill as "harmless"

Ciarán Barnes:

A group of loyalist protesters yesterday prevented a young mother from getting home to give oxygen for her sick 13-month-old daughter. She said the protests could have tragic consequences.

Nationalist politicians last night rubbished PSNI claims that the protests were harmless. They called for action to be taken against those involved.

Loyalists are unhappy at a Parades Commission decision to restrict an Orange Order march that is due to pass through the predominantly nationalist Springfield Road area in west Belfast this afternoon.

Orangemen have been instructed to go onto the Springfield Road via the former Mackies factory site rather than their proposed route along Workman Avenue.

Angry at the Parades Commission's refusal to reverse this decision, loyalists have been planning a mass demonstration on the road today.

They have also staged several illegal rush-hour road blocks since Wednesday. These have seriously disrupted traffic but the PSNI has failed to do anything about the situation.

When asked why officers had taken no action against the protesters, a PSNI spokeswoman said yesterday: "There has been no breach of the peace. The protests have been peaceful.

"They are white-line protests involving women and children that are harmless in effect.

"To go in and make arrests would inflame the situation."

However, a 19-year-old woman who was stopped yesterday from taking her sick child home said last night that lives were being put at risk.

The woman, who did not wish to be named, was travelling in a car that was stopped at north Belfast's Ligoniel Road at 4pm yesterday. She said: "My 13-month-old daughter is on oxygen for an illness and I wanted to get her home because her supply was running out.

"I explained this to the people protesting but they wouldn't let me through. One man said: 'If we are not allowed to march down your road, you will not be allowed up our road.'

"A woman also claimed that they would burn our car if we didn't turn around.

"My daughter was becoming very distressed and I had to turn around and go to my mother's home instead but it was a very frightening experience."

On Wednesday evening, two nationalist community workers were attacked on the Springfield Road by loyalists involved in a roadblock.

Sinn Féin councillor Tom Hartley said the PSNI's "harmless" comments reflect its double standards and tolerance of the loyalist protests.

He said: "There has been massive disruption in Belfast as people are prevented from getting to work and keeping hospital appointments, while children have also been kept from school."

The SDLP's Margaret Walsh insisted the roadblocks were not harmless.

She said: "People have a right to protest, but protests can be carried out in a way that doesn't stop others going to work, school and hospital."

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable, Duncan McCausland, said he feared disorder at today's main loyalist protest on the Springfield Road.

He said: "I am concerned that tomorrow may bring some disorder, but I am also hopeful that common sense will prevail."

Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley and Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey have been putting pressure on Secretary of State Peter Hain.

The minister's refusal to move has led Mr Paisley to warn this "could be the spark which kindles a fire there would be no putting out".

An eleventh hour request for the Parades' Commission to make a U-turn on their decision on the parade by the two leaders was turned down last night.

Sean Paul O'Hare, spokesman for the Springfield Road Residents' Association, said: "We feel that this is another move that will create more tension. We are calling for all sides to adhere to the Parades' Commission decision."

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