Political rows over parades are creating huge problems for PSNI officers which threaten to spiral out of control, the head of the Police Federation has warned.
In a blunt message, Terry Spence said it was time for politicians to “get their fingers out” and help end the deadlock over contentious marches.
Failure to do so, he added, risked further inflaming a volatile situation with officers caught in the crossfire.
Mr Spence said he intended to speak to unionist leaders “very soon” to make his views clear.
The warning comes after another parading controversy erupted in north Belfast at the weekend.
Violence flared after bands defied restrictions put in place by the Parades Commission.
It has led to a fresh political row, amid criticism of a strongly-worded letter issued by unionist politicians, bands and lodges ahead of Saturday’s march which criticised the body.
The letter, signed by the First Minister and every elected unionist in Belfast, called on Secretary of State Owen Paterson to “rid us all of this turbulent body”.
Mr Spence branded the current stalemate “ridiculous”.
“The reality is that politicians have got to get their fingers out and sort this out,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“Instead they are making problems for the police in dealing with these very difficult parade matters.
“That is something that has to be borne in mind by all our politicians whatever their background.
“Everyone knows it is up to the local politicians to drive this forward and until they do we are not going to have a solution to the problem. It is ridiculous.”
Mr Spence said politicians needed to realise that police officers are being caught in the crossfire of the parading dispute.
Saturday’s letter told the Secretary of State to “assume responsibility”, but Mr Spence said the onus was on unionists to come up with a way forward.
“The Parades Commission do not always get it right but they are the only show in town and the unionists have not come up with an alternative,” he added.
“It is all very well to criticise these commissions but unless you come up with something that is better you shouldn’t criticise.
“As things stand police officers are being put in a very difficult situation which could spiral out of control.
“It is not fair to blame Owen Paterson. It is not fair to say the ball is in his court.”
Tensions erupted after a series of bands defied a Parades Commission ruling not to play music as they passed St Patrick’s Church.
The Shankill Road-based Young Conway Volunteers also ignored a ruling barring them from marching past the church.
The group was filmed walking in circles and playing a sectarian song outside the church on July 12.
Bishop of Down and Connor Noel Treanor said he was appalled by the “provocative sectarianism and insulting behaviour” of the bands.
He also hit out at the open letter sent to Mr Paterson just hours before the parade.
Among the 60 signatories were Peter Robinson, Belfast Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson and each of the city’s unionist MLAs and councillors.
It was also signed by representatives of local bands and lodges, including the Young Conway Volunteers and South Belfast Protestant Boys, who stopped and played the Sash outside St Patrick’s.
Bishop Treanor said: “The one-sided nature of this letter and the failure to acknowledge past and present behaviours that give rise to just opposition to such marches in a small number of areas reflects a failed, partisan and unjust politics of the past.
“The signatories, particularly the First Minster and the MLAs, are public representatives for all citizens in our society.
“Their signing of this letter disappoints profoundly all who espouse a shared and tolerant society based on mutual respect.”
Yesterday, church leaders joined the calls for talks in the wake of the disorder.
Fr Michael Sheehan, from St Patrick's Church, suggested a meeting could be organised between his church and clergy from the loyal orders’ churches.
Sinn Fein MLA Caral Ni Chuilin said she was prepared to sit down with Winston Irvine from the North and West Belfast Parades Forum.
However, Mr Irvine said he and Ms Ni Chuilin had already both been “around the same table” talking to residents, senior republicans, Sinn Fein elected representatives and parade organisers.
He added that Saturday's disturbances were “some time in the coming”.
Unionist letter trio refuse to speak... and others that do have little to offer
By Victoria O'Hara and Anna Maguire
Lading DUP politicians have refused to answer direct questions about an open letter to the Secretary of State condemning the Parades Commission.
Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds and Nelson McCausland were among senior unionists who signed the letter to Owen Paterson.
The letter, also signed by loyalist bands, called on the Secretary of State to act immediately to scrap the commission.
Hours after it was published violence broke out during the parade outside St Patrick's Church on Donegall Street after a number of bands defied rulings. Seven police officers were injured in the scuffles.
When asked to comment individually — specifically if they still stand by the contents of the letter and what they believe an alternative to the Parades Commission would be — a general statement was issued by the DUP.
The questions put to the three senior DUP politicians by the Belfast Telegraph were:
- Do you still stand by the contents of the letter?
- Do you regret adding your name to the signatories list?
- Do you agree it made the situation worse?
- And what is the alternative to the Parades Commission?
Instead a short statement was issued on their behalf.
It said: “The DUP has long stated that the Parades Commission is part of the problem in parading rather than a solution. That is a clear and united view of all DUP representatives. The Party has already signalled that after the recess we would like to revisit the issue of seeing the Parades Commission scrapped and a new start to parades here.”
A number of DUP and UUP politicians, however, did speak directly to the Belfast Telegraph.
South Belfast DUP councillor Christopher Stalford said he “absolutely” stands by the letter.
“I think the Parades Commission is a discredited body that has no useful or practical purpose,” he said. “I think it creates division where none had previously existed and the public saw that on Saturday. The Parades Commission actually made an area controversial where there had never been any controversy before.”
When asked what an alternative to the commission would be Mr Stalford said: “There is legislation sitting there, an alternative has been proposed.”
And the DUP Lord Mayor of Belfast Gavin Robinson said there was nothing in the letter he would distance himself from.
“They seem to make volatile situations even more incendiary. I do not see how it (the letter) could have inflamed the situation.
“The alternative is people in north Belfast holding discussions around the contentious issues, as they are doing, and reaching a level of acceptance. People need to accept one another and not feel threatened by it.”
Other unionist politicians also stood by signing the open letter to the Secretary of State.
Councillor Brian Kingston said he supports the view that the Parades Commission is causing “severe harm”.
He added: “However, it is best that I, as an individual, don’t make comment because it was a collective letter.”
UUP councillor Bob Stoker said the Parades Commission decisions have “made matters worse”.
“I don’t think there is a need for any alternative,” he said. “I think there is a very strict justice system in Northern Ireland and I think the PSNI are very capable of implementing the rule of law and order.”
Alderman Jim Rodgers, UUP councillor for east Belfast, said he did not regret signing the letter. “I would do it again tomorrow. Instead of bringing peace and stability to our streets they (Parades Commission) are bringing mayhem and they are heightening tensions.”
When asked what an alternative would be Mr Rodgers said: “I firmly believe you would be better having politicians from both sides handling it rather than these people who seem to have a ‘holier than thou’ approach.”
DUP councillor John Hussey said: “I don’t see how a letter could make the situation worse, I think the Parades Commission did that itself, turning a difficult situation into a bad one. The DUP has made an alternative proposal to the Parades Commission, unfortunately it has yet to be enacted.”
A spokesman for the North and West Belfast Band Parades & Cultural Forum, speaking on behalf of all the bands who signed the letter, said they also stand by it.
“It's fair to say that throughout the series of the Parades Commission's rulings, they have singled out each of the Loyal Orange Lodges, the Orange Order and the Royal Black Preceptory. The Commission has placed restrictions on each of the institutions.
“The area which the Parades Commission placed restrictions on, there have been parades in that area for over 125 years. Sinn Fein has admitted that — and there have not been protests there for over 30 years.
“The actions on Saturday were not directed at the parishioners of St Patrick's Church, the (parish) priests or the residents. They were directed at the Parades Commission. There needs to be legislative change and the powers need to be devolved to local administrators, away from Westminster.
“But I have not got all the answers at this stage.”
It is not Mr Paterson or the parades body failing us, it is local politicians
By Liam Clarke
The attempt by some unionist politicians and the loyal orders to throw responsibility back on Owen Paterson for the parading logjam calls their support for the entire devolution deal into question.
One passage in the incendiary open letter to Mr Paterson signed by the politicians, bands and loyal orders stands out. “It is no longer good enough that you ask communities to come up with an alternative, you have to assume responsibility and take the initiative to stop this madness, before one of their determinations sparks a series of events that takes us back to a place; to which, none of us wish to return,” they wrote.
They later went to liken the Secretary of State to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who symbolically washed his hands of responsibility for the execution of Christ. Many will find the comparison hysterical even blasphemous. We are talking about loyalist bands being asked to take things easy as they pass a church — a long way from the crucifixion.
The letter’s message is that Mr Paterson must clear up our mess and not expect help with it. This is the sort of message which opposition politicians, denied the levers of power, might legitimately send.
Instead our lot have a devolved parliament which can, if they collectively get their act together, replace the Parades Commission in a heartbeat. There is no need for all this hand-wringing. Local politicians have the power to change things but refuse to use it.
As Terry Spence, of the Police Federation, put it: “the reality is that politicians have got to get their fingers out and sort this out.”
He is right. The disorder on Saturday represented a failure of political and community leadership, not a blunder by Mr Paterson or the Commission. In the absence of goodwill and political support for the legal system any determination would have caused trouble. Allowing the bands to proceed with the blessing or protection of the authorities would have sparked violence; attempting to halt them physically would have risked a city centre standoff.
What the situation lacked was any responsible adult to apply the brakes as things lurched out of control. As Mr Spence puts it: “Everyone knows it is up to the local politicians to drive this forward and until they do we are not going to have a solution.”
Political leadership isn’t just grandstanding; it involves pressuring the more extreme elements in your own camp to reach a deal.
If politicians cannot do this they will have shown that they lack the courage to deliver on their promises of a shared society, though we pay them to do so.