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PSNI chief apologises after Supreme Court ruling on illegal flag protests

Northern Ireland's police chief has apologised to those inconvenienced by illegal Union flag protest parades after the Supreme Court ruled that officers did have the power to stop them.

Five Supreme Court justices in London on Wednesday ruled unanimously in favour of an unnamed resident of Belfast's nationalist Short Strand who had challenged the Police Service of Northern Ireland's decision to allow the parades to proceed past the area four years ago.

Mass loyalist demonstrations, some of which descended into serious violence, were staged across Northern Ireland in opposition to Belfast City Council's decision to limit the number of days the Union flag flew over City Hall.

As permission for the loyalist marches was not sought from the Parades Commission adjudication body, the events were not lawful.

In April 2014, a judge at the High Court in Belfast ruled in favour of the Short Strand resident, who claimed the police's failure to stop un-notified loyalist marches past his home between December 2012 and February 2013 breached his right to privacy and family life.

Later that year, appeal judges overturned the ruling following a challenge by the PSNI.

The resident then took his case to the Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court justices said the PSNI had "misconstrued" its legal powers to stop parades passing through or adjacent to the Short Strand area.

Chief Constable George Hamilton said on Thursday that he accepted the judgment in full.

"I apologise to the residents of Short Strand and to anyone else who was inconvenienced by this parade," he said.

Mr Hamilton noted that the Union flag demonstrations presented a "very challenging period" for the police, with officers at times having to respond to 80-100 protest sites across Northern Ireland.

"We accept and respect the ruling of the Supreme Court in this case," he said.

"It is good after four years of legal debate and a lot of scrutiny around this to have some judicial clarity. It is uncomfortable reading in parts for us, but actually it does bring some clarity to us and we will review how we handle un-notified parades in the future in light of this."

Mr Hamilton stressed that the ruling did not mean police had to move in to stop all un-notified parades in the future.

"It gives clarity but it also identifies the importance of police operational discretion," the chief constable said of the ruling.

"So this judgment is not saying every time there is an un-notified parade the police should stop it.

"What it means is the police have the power to stop it, so from our point of view, in some ways, it's another tactic in the menu, another tool in the box for us dealing with this very difficult and unresolved issue of parading in Northern Ireland."

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