Northern Ireland's rival politicians are not moving quickly enough to develop a shared future to help ease tensions on the streets, a senior police officer claims.
Police have been left filling the gap because mature leadership is absent, Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Superintendent Nigel Grimshaw added.
Weeks of loyalist protests followed the December 3 decision of Belfast City Council to limit the flying of the Union flag from the city hall and there has been serious violence from dissident republicans against police in the city after loyal order parades.
Mr Grimshaw said: "Surely the maturing of political dialogue coupled with a move away from the threat of violence must be major elements in delivering the shared future that we all so much need, for in its absence there are others who will seek to create and occupy their own spaces and there will be a continued need for short-term policing solutions in the absence of genuine, confident societal change."
Police have become used to being the meat in sandwich when it comes to conflict, dispute and protest, he said.
"It is the view of the (Superintendents') Association that the time has long since passed for those with influence at political, civic and community level to change the appetites of people across this society once and for all," he added.
"In our view that can only happen when we see the firm outworkings of a commitment to a shared future. It does seem that the realisation of the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy is further away than ever."
Many police officers have been injured and 240 people arrested during protests against the flag decision which turned violent. Police used water cannons to fend off rioters in parts of east Belfast after the council voted to only fly the flag on designated days rather than every day. The trouble continued from before Christmas into January.
Mr Grimshaw told his association's annual conference in Belfast the law surrounding public processions by street demonstrators should be reviewed.
He added: "What does concern me however is the lack of progress in our society that necessitates the police being put in these positions in the first place."