DUBLIN — A senior Sinn Fein figure in Northern Ireland's government climbed on to a moving police vehicle during a tense confrontation with police, video footage released Saturday shows, as the Irish nationalist party criticized the police actions as dangerous.
Friday night's episode illustrated how bitterly divided Northern Ireland remains despite a two-decade peace process designed, in part, to develop better Catholic support for the British territory's mostly Protestant police force.
Gerry Kelly, the Sinn Fein justice and policing spokesman and a member of a cross-community panel that oversees police operations, tried to stop a convoy of armored police vehicles in a working-class Catholic part of north Belfast after officers arrested a 16-year-old on suspicion of rioting. Kelly could be heard telling officers he wanted them to talk to the suspect's mother, but police instead blared sirens and flashed headlights in warning for pedestrians to get out of the way.
As the convoy departed, Kelly tried knocking on the shatterproof windows of one vehicle, then stepped into the path of the next. The vehicle slowed almost to a halt as Kelly, backpedaling, grabbed a grill on the vehicle's hood and pulled himself up on it. The vehicle drove a short distance – Sinn Fein said 50 yards (150 feet), though it appeared much less than that – before stopping as supporters surrounded the vehicle. Youths, some covering their faces with hoods and scarves, punched and kicked the vehicle, demanding the 16-year-old's release, as Kelly told them to stop.
Sinn Fein also said one of its members of the Northern Ireland government, arts minister Caral Ni Chuilin, was injured by the police vehicle during the confrontation. Party leader Gerry Adams said she was hospitalized and released for suspected ligament damage.
The Sinn Fein-provided video does show Ni Chuilin near the vehicle as it stops. But she is seen chatting with others and at one point smiling.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland referred the dispute to an independent ombudsman responsible for investigating complaints against the police.
The street trouble followed an annual parade through north Belfast by the Orange Order, a Protestant brotherhood that is despised by much of Northern Ireland's Irish Catholic minority.
Sinn Fein in 2007 voted to accept the legal authority of Northern Ireland's police as part of a wider deal to form a unity government alongside the British Protestant majority. But each summer's traditional Orange Order marches put that commitment to the test, as police often must weigh the right of Orangemen to parade versus Catholic residents' right to live free of sectarian harassment.
Sinn Fein faces criticism within its own Irish republican heartlands over its decision to compromise. Most members of the outlawed Irish Republican Army disarmed and renounced violence in 2005 following a failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. That campaign left nearly 1,800 people dead, including 300 police officers. But IRA splinter groups today continue to mount bomb and gun attacks, particularly against police, and seek to weaken Catholic support for Sinn Fein.
Both Kelly and Ni Chuilin are IRA veterans.
Kelly, 60, spent 17 years on the run or behind bars for his role in launching the IRA's first car-bomb attacks on London in 1972, then leading a mass breakout of IRA prisoners from Northern Ireland's Maze Prison in 1983.
Ni Chuilin, 48, served five years in prison after being convicted of trying to bomb a police base in 1989.
Sinn Fein footage of event, http://bit.ly/16oB86Z