Protesters who ran amok through central streets and attacked police with missiles, including scaffolding poles and paving stones ripped up from a main shopping district, have scarred the city’s reputation, Matt Baggott said.
The region’s top officer issued a challenge to politicians and community leaders to act like “statesmen” in the wake of the disorder and unequivocally condemn those responsible.
The violence erupted in the Royal Avenue area, a usually busy commercial street close to City Hall, as more than a thousand loyalist demonstrators gathered to protest at the republican rally to mark the introduction of internment without trial in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
Four officers required hospital treatment. Police, who deployed water canon and 26 plastic baton rounds in a bid to quell the unrest, have arrested seven people so far, but have warned that many more will follow.
“I know that 99%, if not more, of the population will stand with me in utterly condemning those who scarred the reputation of our beautiful city last night,” said Mr Baggott.
“Those people had no intention of peaceful protest, they lack self respect and they lack dignity.”
Mr Baggott, who warned that the “prisons would be bulging” once the police had identified and arrested those responsible, added: “The only voices we should hear now are those unequivocally condemning the violence and supporting fully the actions of the police and the rule of law and I don’t want to hear any excuses for the disgraceful scenes that took place last night, because quite frankly there aren’t any.”
The trouble broke out as the city hosts thousands of international visitors attending the World Police and Fire Games.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers condemned the rioters.
“Last night’s violence and attacks on police officers were shameful,” she said.
“After success for Northern Ireland this summer as host to both the G8 Summit (in Co Fermanagh in June) and the World Police and Fire Games, disorder on the streets is a hugely regrettable step backwards.”
Last night’s violence spread from the Royal Avenue area as the Anti-Internment League parade, which was sanctioned by the Parades Commission adjudication body, approached from north Belfast.
Some direct clashes with loyalists and republicans ensued close to the entrance to the unionist Shankill Road, and police said they came under attack from both sides, but officers have stressed that loyalist protesters were responsible for the vast majority of the violence.
A number of parked vehicles were set on fire in the nearby North Street area and police have revealed that some rioters took to the roof tops of city buildings and houses and tried to set them on fire.
The parade did not pass down Royal Avenue as intended. After a significant delay, it did finally proceed along the outskirts of the city centre and onward to west Belfast.
Police stressed that the parade was not re-routed by their officers with organisers voluntarily deciding to take another road.
The Parades Commission had authorised the parade and permitted six notified protests, including one by the Orange Order.
Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton heavily criticised those who arranged the demonstrations.
“There was absolutely no organisation, no co-ordination, no leadership around any of those protests,” he said.
The officer said it was clear that a large number of the protesters arrived with “violent intent”.
“There was no attempt whatsoever, that we could see, of any organised or coordinated protest activity in keeping with that which had been notified to the parades commission.”
Mr Hamilton characterised the violence in Royal Avenue as “very severe”.
“There were all sorts of weapons and equipment being used against police, including scaffolding, masonry, people were pulling up the paving stones from the busiest shopping precinct in Belfast and were destroying our city and taking that masonry and throwing it at our police officers who put their lives on the line to try and keep people safe.
“There was nothing lawful about this protest, there was nothing peaceful about it - it was sheer thuggery.”
The assistant chief constable said officers had almost cleared Royal Avenue of protesters when the parade organisers decided to take another route.
“It’s perhaps understandable that they would do that,” he said.
“But the police did not re-route the parade away from Royal Avenue and in fact we were within minutes of having Royal Avenue cleared to allow the parade go through.”
Mr Hamilton added: “We would call on anyone with any influence to stand up and be counted, actually to show some leadership around what is a difficult set of circumstances for us, but we actually need those with influence within the community to use that for good, so that we don’t resort to the violent scenes that we saw last night.”