Police officers "behaved like heroes" in the face of "appalling violence" at the weekend, the chief constable says.
Police restraining Orange Order marchers
Sir Hugh Orde said his officers had "delivered truly world class policing" when tackling widespread rioting.
Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain told the Police Federation convention there could be "no equivocation" in condemning attacks on officers.
Federation chairman Irwin Montgomery said the rioting was the result of community and political failure.
He told the Police Federation's annual convention that officers "would not be deterred from their job but needed support".
Sir Hugh promised that any lessons from policing the riots would "be learned at every level of the organisation".
He said their performance proved the PSNI was not "soft on loyalism".
"I have been consistent in condemning both sides for their behaviour over the season," he said.
"The sad fact is that until communities come to terms with living peacefully with each other, our officers will be stuck in the middle."
Replying to Police Federation concerns, Mr Hain said the police had shown "overwhelming professionalism and courage" during the recent rioting.
"An attack on the police is an attack on the rule of law and on everyone who values a civilised society," he said.
"Work with the PSNI and allow others to do so."
Mr Hain added: "The police put their lives on the front line between the rule of law and the rule of the mob.
"They are not simply managing public disorder - they are defending the fundamental principles of a decent society."
The Northern Ireland Secretary reiterated his call for all attacks on the police, particularly those witnessed in recent days in loyalist communities, to stop immediately.
"We have heard a great deal about grievances and frustration and anger in the communities where violence took place last weekend," he said.
"All that must be addressed by politicians, including government."
Calling for fully inclusive engagement with policing from all communities, he said: "The past has dominated lives in Northern Ireland for too long.
"We need to move forward so that the future dominates all thinking and all activity in Northern Ireland."
Earlier, Police Federation chairman Irwin Mongomery said: "What we need is vocal and unwavering support from the political top down."
Mr Montgomery said policing was being undermined by other pressures including Sinn Fein's use of the service as a "concession point" in negotiations with the government
Another was loyalist and republican paramilitaries "who continue to thrive overtly and relatively unhampered, especially in Belfast".
"Lastly, and shamefully, our own command, whose decision-making ability, certainly until recently, appeared increasingly compromised by the demands of public accountability," he said.
Mr Montgomery described the "willingness" to permit the return of wanted republicans as "the first step in a slide towards amnesty".
"The return of on-the-runs, and especially amnesty, will be very difficult for members of the Police Service and our families," he said.
Welcoming a government assurance that former IRA prisoners would not be permitted to join the police service, he said: "This Federation says not even suspected terrorists must ever be admitted to the Police Service."
It also emerged at the conference that some officers felt they were left too exposed during republican rioting in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast on 12 July.
The Police Federation has sent a formal complaint to the Health and Safety Executive.