Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Damning ruling by judge over loyalist flag protests: Too often the tail wagged the dog ... this was not the PSNI's finest hour

Police chiefs were wrong to allow illegal and violent protest marches, the High Court has ruled
Police chiefs were wrong to allow illegal and violent protest marches, the High Court has ruled

The street clowns had taken over the circus and there was no sign of a ringmaster.

In the fallout from the City Hall flag vote, the period from December 2012 through to February 2013 was characterised by policing indecision.

It wasn't just those illegal marches in and out of the city centre, but the roads that were blocked – sometimes by small numbers of women and children.

And as the public became more angry, the police just seemed to stand back helplessly.

At times I watched them direct traffic away from the roadblocks – I watched as the tail wagged the dog.

The regular parade from east Belfast to the City Hall and back was the most obvious indicator of what was wrong with policing policy.

On one particular Saturday in January 2013 I watched as police lost control of the crowd.

And then I watched as that crowd made its way back to the east of the city across the front of the Short Strand, with all the inevitable fallout and tension and confrontation that followed.

In this newspaper at the time I wrote the following: "My observation was not just of police in the middle, but police in a muddle and in a mess.

"People, getting more angry by the day, have watched roads being blocked and are asking questions not about what the police are doing, but what they are not doing."

The following Saturday there was a tougher security approach. Not to stop the march, but to ensure the scenes of the previous weekend were not repeated.

It meant an operation in which the police at last showed their teeth.

There were 120-150 Land Rovers, dog teams and officers at every twist and turn tracking the marchers on their way in and out of the city.

This was about controlling the march, following its every footstep and making sure it didn't break away like it had with all the chaos and consequences of the previous weekend.

Again, at the time, I wrote: "If this protest walks like a march and looks like a march, then it is a march, and Belfast can't afford it, and nor can the police."

The Parades Commission said there had been no march applications and this was a policing matter. Yesterday's judgment underscores that point.

It wasn't the police's finest hour.

But it was not all their fault. There were comments from within the loyalist community about a "cultural war" that stirred up an already ugly mood.

Some politicians and loyalist leaders played to the small crowd. And the police were left with the mess on the streets, fearing a wrong move by them could make the situation many times worse.

That dark mood continued into the summer marching season, and is still simmering as another July and another north Belfast march decision looms.

Further reading

Loyalist flag protests: Criticism of the PSNI's softly tactics legitimate 

Loyalist flag protests: PSNI chief Matt Baggott will appeal judgement that force was wrong to allow illegal and violent protest marches

Loyalist flag protests: Police chiefs wrong to allow illegal and violent protest marches, High Court judge rules 

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