Police should have intervened earlier in a bonfire dispute that ended in violent clashes in a republican neighbourhood in Belfast, Gerry Adams has said.
The former Sinn Fein president attended a family fun day in the New Lodge on Saturday, two days after the police were forced to withdraw from the area having come under attack as they tried to support contractors in the removal of the illegal pyre.
Mr Adams branded those involved in the violence which saw three police officers injured as thugs and hooligans.
The bonfire was lit ahead of the anniversary of the introduction of the controversial policy of internment without trial of suspected republican paramilitaries in 1971.
Police abandoned an operation to remove the structure before it was lit amid concerns innocent bystanders could be hurt in disorder.
Trouble broke out in the area when armed officers attended the scene on Thursday. Police claim the violence was likely orchestrated by dissident republicans.
Mr Adams insisted the bonfire was “nothing at all to do with internment” and said anyone who tried to portray the disorder as an act of republican resistance was talking “total nonsense”.
He said: “The hooliganism needs to stop, the thuggery needs to stop and this community needs to be given breathing space.”
Mr Adams said he understood the rationale police had given for withdrawing from the area on Thursday, given “public safety” issues were at play.
But he said the situation should never have reached that stage and the bonfire should not have been allowed to have been built in the first place.
“I think they should have come in at a different time and dismantled it,” he said.
“I can understand the rationale they gave for having to withdraw. When you see wee bucks [youths] up on top of the bonfire, obviously they are all public safety issues.
“But it should never have got to this point. People here deserved to be policed properly on terms which would be acceptable. No harm to the people of the Malone Road [an affluent street in Belfast], but this would not have happened on the Malone Road.
“There are many republicans now on the Malone Road as well, but I just couldn’t imagine anybody trying to put pallets in some of those areas.
“It shouldn’t happen here in these working class neighbourhoods.”
He added: “We were part of this huge historical move and came forward to support policing, but it has to be policing with the community, and this should never ever happen again in the New Lodge or indeed anywhere else, whether it is in a so-called unionist area or a republican area – this should never happen again.”
Mr Adams was accompanied on his visit to the New Lodge Youth Centre by Sinn Fein councillor JJ Magee, who was subjected to abuse as he tried to engage with young people on the ground on Thursday.
Mr Magee said: “We can’t have that situation ever again.
“We need to build from tomorrow, we need to start tomorrow and not leave it until the last few weeks like this year.
“We have learned that lesson so we need to start from tomorrow.”