PSNI chief Baggott bites back as Peter Robinson queries police impartiality
Peter Robinson has been accused of interfering in the operational independence of the PSNI, as a very public rift emerges between the First Minister and the Chief Constable over the policing of Union flag protests.
The SDLP's Conall McDevitt has stated that Mr Robinson had no right "directing" policing in Northern Ireland, after the First Minister criticised how the PSNI has dealt with illegal demonstrations.
Mr Robinson said the PSNI has to show that its actions in recent months while dealing with flag protests "were entirely even-handed".
In an unusual step for the normally reserved Chief Constable, Matt Baggott yesterday publicly hit back at Mr Robinson who claimed a large section of the community do not believe the PSNI was being impartial.
Mr Baggott said that the "incredibly volatile situation" over the past few months was "made all the more difficult by the absence of political consensus".
Stressing that that policing alone cannot resolve "the current dispute and grievances", the Chief Constable insisted that "renewed dialogue and innovation" is needed.
He added that all of the police actions have been taken "impartially and within the rule of law".
"For weeks I have been warning about the consequences of law-breaking and the fact that evidence was being gathered. There should be no surprises with the outcomes," he said.
So far the PSNI has arrested 212 people in relation to illegal flag protests, including prominent organisers Willie Frazer, Jamie Bryson and Jim Dowson.
Charges have been brought against 160 people. The row between the Chief Constable and the First Minister erupted after Mr Robinson met Mr Baggott on Monday to discuss the PSNI's approach to the flags protests.
Following the meeting Mr Robinson said the police must address a perception they treat loyalists differently than republicans.
He also claimed there was a belief courts were treating the two sides differently, with leading republicans getting bail in contrast to loyalists.
"It's important that the police gain the confidence of the unionist community, or regain the confidence of that section of the unionist community who have lost confidence in the police, by showing that his actions were entirely even-handed," Mr Robinson said.
Mr Baggott said the PSNI received "very favourable feedback from across all communities regarding our measured approach."
The DUP's deputy leader Nigel Dodds last night jumped to Mr Robinson's defence saying that he was "absolutely right to raise these concerns with the Chief Constable and to point out publicly the perception there is out there over recent events".
The North Belfast MP added: "Peter is reflecting the mood on the ground. People are very concerned within the unionist community with how these policing operations are being carried out. Peter is not wrong at all."
Concern was last night mounting over the potential implications of a rift between the Chief Constable and First Minister so close to the marching season.
"Tensions are already high in some areas ahead of the summer marching season and a breakdown in relations between the Chief Constable and the First Minister will not be helpful," said policing expert Dr Jonny Byrne, from the University of Ulster.
"All you can do is ask the PSNI to uphold the rule of law, regardless of what community they are in and I think they are doing that in particularly difficult and challenging circumstances."
He added: "Continually making our police officers police political fallouts and disputes like the flag protests and parading issues takes us further away from what we should expect from our police service."
Story so far
More than 200 people have been arrested and 160 people charged in relation to illegal union flag protests which have been ongoing from December 3. The PSNI has faced criticism from nationalist and republican quarters for not being tough enough against protesters. Now Peter Robinson has claimed there is a perception within the unionist community that the PSNI treats loyalists differently to republicans.
SDLP suspects ‘outrageous’ comments are a breach of ministerial code
The SDLP is checking to see if Peter Robinson’s comments about police and the courts were a breach of Stormont’s ministerial code of conduct.
The First Minister’s claims that there is a perception within unionism that the PSNI treats loyalists differently than republicans have been described by the SDLP as “outrageous”.
SDLP Policing Board member Conall McDevitt (right) also accused the First Minister of “chancing his arm” and trying to “direct” policing.
“I think Peter Robinson seems to forget he is the First Minister for everyone in Northern Ireland and he also seems to forget he is only First Minister because of the Good Friday Agreement and the new beginning of policing, which states that we have an operationally independent police service, and an independent ac
countability framework in the Policing Board.
“It is carefully designed so that nobody in ministerial office can direct the PSNI,” Mr McDevitt said.
He accused Mr Robinson of trying to direct policing in Northern Ireland: “This was just Peter Robinson chancing his arm. He thinks at times that he is above the Good Friday Agreement.
“He talks about how the rule of law should be upheld, I think that he himself should show respect for the rule of law.”
The SDLP MLA added: “I want Peter Robinson to assert the operational independence of the PSNI, to assert the authority of the Policing Board and |to speak on behalf |of everyone in Northern Ireland.”