PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne has warned that Northern Ireland must step back from the brink of violence amid rising post-Brexit tensions.
More threatening graffiti has appeared in some loyalist areas, in the wake of scores of masked UVF men descending on Pitt Park in east Belfast earlier this week.
The Chief Constable described those scenes, footage of which widely circulated online, as “atrocious” – but rejected any suggestion police had not responded appropriately.
He told Thursday’s meeting of the Policing Board that six police officers had to deal with a crowd that swelled to 50 people in just three minutes.
“What you see on a short burst of film is sometimes not the whole story,” he said, adding that the entire incident – which only played out in part on social media – lasted 17 minutes.
I can assure you that we are using our best efforts to target people that are trying to disrupt the safety and security of community. There is just no place for this sort of thuggery or indeed organised crime, because that is really what this is about underneath.
The Chief Constable explained how a small number of officers had gone to the Ballymac Friendship Centre to find individuals whose safety was potentially at risk, and that their priority had been to protect them.
“There were just a small number of police officers present at that point,” he said.
“While we were calling for other police officers to come from specialist units… they were arriving and, as they did, the crowd started to disperse.
“So within six minutes, they were gone.”
The Chief Constable added that police were following up on evidence gathered at the time, regarding Covid breaches and other criminal offences.
Meanwhile, police have also insisted that threats against officials carrying out customs checks at ports in Belfast and Larne are not from loyalist paramilitaries, but disgruntled individuals or groups.
Staff have been withdrawn due to fears for their safety and physical food checks on products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain have been temporarily suspended.
Chief Constable Byrne says politicians must play a role in diffusing the current tensions.
“It’s now time for wise words and calm heads,” he told the Policing Board.
“We need to actually work together to look at a route map to normality, because that seems to be the opportunity before us to step back from the brink in terms of community tension.”
First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster, who has been calling for the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol at the centre of unease around post-Brexit arrangements to be scrapped, made her own appeal for calm after a meeting of the Stormont executive.
However, she stressed that the concerns of unionists over the protocol's potential to damage Northern Ireland's link with the rest of the UK could not be dismissed or ignored.
“We will have to find a way forward,” she said.
“That’ll have to be found quickly because the disruption is causing community tensions and, of course, we do want everyone to stay calm and we do want people to act through constitutional politics - but if they’re being ignored, then they become more angry and even more tense.”
Mrs Foster was speaking at a press conference in Dungannon, alongside Sinn Féin Finance Minister Conor Murphy as deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill is currently self-isolating.
Mr Murphy and his party colleagues have rejected any suggestion that the protocol, which is designed to avoid a return of a hard border on the island of Ireland, should be binned.
It is a position shared by the Irish Government.
“I think it is very clear that we do need a dialing down of the rhetoric,” he added.
“We’ve heard some comments which I think are dangerous from people who should know better on radio and programmes yesterday.
“And, of course, those people will never be the ones who will either suffer as a consequence of any action taken nor be involved in it themselves and will engage in some hand-wringing if violence does break out.”
The politicians were both asked to react to comments from David Campbell, a spokesman for an umbrella group representing loyalist paramilitary organisations.
He caused controversy on Wednesday when he raised the prospect of people having to “physically fight” to maintain freedoms within the UK.
Chief Constable Byrne branded those remarks as “inflammatory”, while the First Minister said she was “quite shocked” to be told about them.
“Obviously, from my perspective, I'm always against any forms of violence – I believe in constitutional politics,” Mrs Foster said.
Mr Murphy said Mr Campbell “should know better”, adding: “People need to be very careful with words and the intent behind those words.”
Meanwhile, at the earlier Policing Board meeting, the Chief Constable also addressed the issue of policing breaches of coronavirus legislation and guidance, revealing that 24 funerals have been investigated since the start of the pandemic.
Eleven of those investigations are ongoing.
Meanwhile, the PSNI faces a possible budget deficit of around £23m – policing, like all emergency services, is under pressure.