THE DUP and SDLP have clashed over a number of ‘hate crime’ incidents at a youth football match in North Belfast on Friday evening.
A man suffered cuts to his face after an object was thrown at him at a match between Ballysillan Swifts and St Patrick’s FC at Girdwood Community Hub.
Police said a number of people were also subjected to sectarian abuse during the game and are treating both incidents as hate crimes.
DUP councillor Dale Pankhurst said Girdwood "continues to be used as a site for attacks on Protestants".
“This sectarian attack is just the latest in a long line of incidents at Girdwood," he said.
“During a match between Ballysillan Swifts and St Patrick’s FC, a large group of nationalist youths arrived on site and began hurling abuse at young Protestant players, using obscene language. The match had to be abandoned due to fears for the players’ safety.
“As the parents and players were leaving the pitch, they were called “Orange b******s” before being attacked with bottles as they left.
“This sectarian attack highlights how Girdwood continues to be used as a site for attacks on both Protestants using the site and against local unionist areas such as lower Oldpark.
"The site is also poorly secured and requires fencing and gates on all four sides. At the moment, the Antrim Road entrance has no gate thereby facilitating both the entry and the escape of these youths once they have committed an offence. This gap in security is unacceptable and must change given the health and safety implications for those using the site.
“I would also call on political representatives from the nationalist community to condemn this attack. It is disgraceful that a site designed for shared usage is continually undermined in this way.
“I would also appeal to anyone with any information to bring it forward to the police. I will be asking Council officers to urgently review CCTV footage with a view to identifying those responsible.”
In response, SDLP councillor Paul McCusker accused Councillor Pankhurst of adding ‘fuel to the fire’.
“SDLP condemns any form of sectarianism where ever it comes from, there is no place for it in today’s society," he said.
“We have been in contact with the PSNI to establish the full facts, who have advised that the neighbourhood teams will be making further inquiries regarding the football game between St Patricks FC and Ballysillan Swifts FC. We are aware also that this isn’t the first incident with both teams.
“We have been contacted by parents and residents who were in attendance last night and witnessed everything.
“It is concerning that Councillor Pankhurst instead of trying to help de-escalate the situation is adding fuel to the fire. Leadership is about working together on these issues but he is not interested in this.
“All teams in North Belfast should feel safe no matter where they are playing football and it’s the job of all political leaders to help achieve this, issuing statements with one-sided views certainly does not help when we are working to address these difficult issues. We need to work to help develop our local teams, not divide them.
“We will be meeting with the PSNI next week to get the full facts and would urge all political leaders to work together to help put an end to these incidents.”
In a statement, St Patrick's FC said: "St Patrick's Football Club wishes to condemn the anti-social behaviour that was witnessed at Girdwood on Friday, September 3 during and after a youth football game between St Patricks FC and Ballysillan Swifts.
"St Patrick's Football Club has been at the forefront of promoting cross-community relations in North Belfast, including links with Ballysillan Swifts, and we do not condone or tolerate any form of anti-social behaviour or sectarianism within our Club.
"As a club we work tirelessly to provide the youth within our community with an avenue to health, fitness and a sense of purpose. St Patricks FC have run many Good Relations Programmes from Girdwood Community Hub and clubs from both sides of the community will testify to the friendly, safe and welcoming atmosphere that we at St Patricks pride ourselves on.
"We believe that inflammatory, misleading comments on social media only serve to make the situation worse and would call on people to refrain from making such comments.
"We will assist the PSNI with their enquiries and wish to see the matter resolved as quickly as possible. As this is an ongoing police investigation we will not be making any more comments on the matter. We trust this confirms our position."
Ballysillan Swifts said: "Reports have been made to the relevant authorities in relation to what happened, we have nothing further to add on the matter."
A PSNI spokesman said: “Police also received further reports that a number of people had been subjected to sectarian abuse during the game.
“Investigations are ongoing into these incidents, which are being treated as hate crimes.”
Police have appealed to anyone who witnessed what happened to contact them on 101 or anonymously on the Crimestoppers number 0800 555 111.