Loyalist protesters have vowed that if police continue to arrest them they will cause even more mayhem.
As they prepared to launch protests across many parts of Northern Ireland again on Monday evening — in what has become known as ‘Operation Standstill’ — demonstrators have said that the PSNI will “only make things worse” if they try to make arrests.
After seven weeks of illegal protests and disorder, the PSNI has begun to move in and detain demonstrators blocking roads.
Over the weekend at least nine people were arrested in relation to recent illegal protests in Belfast and Ballyclare.
Although more than 100 people have been arrested in connection with rioting, these are among the first arrests associated with roadblocks during protests. The move appears to be part of a more robust approach adopted by police over the weekend.
Large numbers of officers and more than 100 PSNI Land Rovers flooded Belfast city centre on Saturday during a demonstration at the City Hall.
They followed protesters back into east Belfast — the scene of several nights of rioting — to prevent any repeat of the previous weekend when trouble broke out between loyalists and republicans at the Short Strand flashpoint.
The PSNI was on standby again at Belfast City Hall on Sunday, however no protesters turned up for a planned demonstration scheduled to take place at 2pm.
The protest was expected to coincide with the hoisting of the Union flag for a second time since Belfast City Council voted to fly it on designated days only.
The flag went up at dawn to mark the 48th birthday of the Earl of Wessex's wife Sophie. A small protest was held in Newtownabbey where police handed out leaflets to demonstrators warning them they could face arrest if they blocked roads or covered their faces.
One of the most prominent protesters, Jamie Bryson, said the PSNI’s decision to arrest protesters “is going to cause big problems and could cause trouble”.
“People are very annoyed about this and it could lead to big-time trouble. It could also be a major stumbling block in bringing an end to these protests. It could even mean more.
“They are arresting easy targets. They don’t arrest me because they know it would cause mayhem. But if they did arrest me it wouldn’t stop me protesting as soon as I got bail,” he said.
Mr Bryson added: “Protesting, even if it’s blocking roads, is just civil disobedience. I have no problem with civil disobedience — as long as it’s peaceful.”
He also said that the threat of arrest is not going to deter protesters. “We’re all ready for this evening (Operation Standstill) and we’ll keep going for as long as it takes. We won’t be deterred,” he vowed.
SDLP Policing Board member Conall McDevitt said he was glad to see the PSNI acting “more assertively” and he hoped this approach would be consistent.
“I have been calling for several weeks now for the police to take a more assertive approach. The policing of the city centre on Saturday and the return to east Belfast was assertive and pointed out that the police are in charge,” said Mr McDevitt.
He added: “When protesters are blocking roads the public will be glad to see the police now moving in to make arrests. I hope that the police will be consistent in this approach and continue to behave assertively.”