Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

PSNI comes under pressure to crack down on illegal parades

SDLP demands tougher action to tackle protests

First Minister Peter Robinson is heckled on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast after his meeting with Church and community leaders

The PSNI has been told to stop facilitating illegal parades after an eighth weekend in a row of flag-related disruption in Belfast city centre.

The police were on Sunday night coming under increasing pressure to take a stronger approach to loyalist marches that have repeatedly flouted strict parading laws.

With no end in sight for the now weekly Saturday afternoon march to and from Belfast City Hall — the SDLP’s Alban Maginness said the PSNI must take tougher action.

“People have tolerated the gross and repeated disruption of their lives by these flag protests, whether they are parades or obstruction of the highway.

“It is not good enough for the police to be facilitating such illegal activities. It’s time that came to an end,” Mr Maginness said.

Saturday’s march from east Belfast to the City Hall marked the eighth weekend such an illegal event has been held.

The event saw a number of skirmishes and one arrest but was largely without incident.

Not one of the Saturday marches has been notified to the Parades Commission.

SDLP justice spokesman Conall McDevitt said flag protesters’ failure to apply for commission permission puts the body in a difficult position.

He said the law may now need to be “strengthened and amended” by Westminster.

He said he was taken aback by the Chief Constable’s comments last week when he was speaking to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster.

Matt Baggott said the authority of the commission had been undermined by protests and he defended the PSNI’s response.

The commission and PSNI are currently exploring the legal options surrounding parades that have not sought notification.

A Parades Commission spokesman on Sunday night said: “The commission has been notified of 14 Union flag related parades to date. It has not, however, received any notifications regarding recent events taking place in Belfast on Saturdays.

“The remit of the commission extends to parades and parade-related protests only.

“The commission has no remit to consider protests generally.”

Mr McDevitt said: “It would be great if the commission was receiving applications for parades and the PSNI was not left in the middle making tough decisions.

“But when faced with illegal demonstrations the police must act in accordance with their duties and keep the roads open.”

Alliance Party justice spokesman, Stuart Dickson MLA, whose office was burnt out by loyalists, said: “It is entirely the responsibility of parade organisers to seek the relevant permissions.

On Saturday, First Minister Peter Robinson was heckled after he emerged from a meeting with community and Church leaders on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast. A small group tried to block his vehicle from leaving and hit it with a flagpole.

A DUP spokesman said further discussions will take place in the coming days.

“We are very aware of the impact on people's day-to-day activities and also on our business community,” he said.

“The police have responsibility for maintaining law and order, however we encourage those engaged in unlawful activities to channel their energies in a political path.”

Meanwhile, a 31-year-old man was due to appear at Belfast Magistrates’ Court on Monday charged with resisting police, riot, assault on police and possession of a class B drug, following a protest in Newtownabbey on Saturday.

And a 42-year-old man arrested in east Belfast on Saturday is also expected to appear before Belfast Magistrates’ Court charged with obstructing traffic in a public place, two charges of assault on police and three charges of resisting arrest.

Background

Hundreds of flag protests, parades and roadblocks have taken place across Northern Ireland since December 3, when Belfast City councillors voted in favour of flying the Union flag on designated days only. Since then, loyalists have taken to the streets in protest, although demonstrations have frequently turned violent. Businesses say they have been struggling as shoppers stay away.

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