A politician who says he witnessed the desecration of a memorial to 18 murdered soldiers has described the sight of men kicking Poppy wreaths around like a football.
Wreaths, crosses and written tributes were vandalised at Narrow Water, near Warrenpoint in Co Down where a British Army convoy was ambushed by two roadside bombs in August, 1979.
Belfast football club Cliftonville, whose supporters would mostly be drawn from the nationalist/republican tradition, said it was aware of reports some fans returning from Saturday’s fixture against Warrenpoint Town were responsible.
Councillor Jarlath Tinnelly said he was driving past on the other side of the road on Saturday afternoon when he witnessed the incident unfolding, as a crowd of men gathered at the front of a parked bus.
“There were three or four men ripping at the Poppy wreaths,” he told the Press Association.
“The anniversary of Narrow Water was only a couple of weeks ago, so that stuff would have been fresh and new and replaced as it is every year.
“There were boys just ripping them off and kicking them around as if they were playing about with them in the school yard – it was absolutely incredible to see.
“The most shocking thing of the whole lot was the brazenness of it. On a Saturday afternoon and the amount of traffic going past and the perpetrators absolutely unconcerned about who was watching them and who was seeing this going on.”
New wreaths were erected on Sunday morning by a group dedicated to protecting the memorial.
Mr Tinnelly, who said he did not make the connection the men might have been football fans, said he had no hesitation reporting the matter straight to police.
“I am a local councillor and I feel like I have a civic responsibility when I come across this and I have no hesitation in calling it out as I see it,” he said.
“What I saw yesterday was a hate crime in action.
“I condemn that in the strongest possible terms. That level of intolerance and disrespect in normal society in 2018 is just unacceptable.
“I know those sentiments would also be shared by the vast, vast majority of people throughout South Down and the whole district no doubt.
“For a group of grown men to take a conscientious decision to do something like that – it just beggars belief.”
The independent councillor on Newry, Mourne and Down District Council added: “The other thing I found shocking was one of the guys that was with me was fairly certain he saw a man standing holding a child in his arms, so it looks like there were young children on that bus as well.”
Cliftonville has condemned the incident as “pathetic” and made clear the perpetrators were not part of an official or affiliated supporters club.
Club chairman Gerard Lawlor said: “I totally condemn any act of desecration. We live in a sad society where anyone would get a kick out of desecrating a memorial.
“If anyone connected with our Club has any information about the incident then they should report it to the PSNI. This pathetic act isn’t in my name nor that of Cliftonville Football Club.”
The club said it would cooperate fully with the Police Service of Northern Ireland investigation.
The incident was reported to police around 5.20pm on Saturday. A short time later they stopped a bus further up the road to Belfast at Lisburn.
Officers spoke to a number of passengers and the bus was impounded for evidence gathering purposes.
Appealing for witnesses, a PSNI spokeswoman said: “The incident is being treated as a hate crime.”
The vandalism has drawn condemnation from across the political spectrum on the island of Ireland.
Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster branded it a “disgusting and twisted act of hatred”.
“Glad it is being condemned across the board,” she added
“Those responsible need to be held accountable for their actions. Desecrating a memorial runs against the natural instincts of humanity.”
Irish Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan described the incident as a “despicable act of hatred”.
Sinn Fein Assembly member Sinead Ennis said: “This is the second time in recent months that the wreaths at Narrow Water in Warrenpoint have been vandalised.
“There is no place for attacks like in our society and I condemn this act outright.
“Monuments and memorials are important places in communities and should be respected.”
DUP MLA for South Down Jim Well said: “This blatant hate crime clearly confirms the presence of a deeply sectarian element within the team’s supporters which must be dealt with by the club”.
Ulster Unionist councillor David Taylor said it was hard to find words strong enough to condemn the episode.
“Their attack on this memorial is deplorable,” he added.
“These so called football fans are the lowest of the low and are intent on causing more pain for the families of the victims.
“They are vile and disgusting individuals who have brought shame on the football club which they claim to support.
“They must not be allowed to get away with this.”