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PSNI chief Hamilton faces questions after flag protest ruling by Supreme Court

By Cathy Gordon

The Chief Constable is to face a grilling today after a Belfast resident won a case at the UK's highest court over the PSNI's failure to stop Union flag protests.

Five Supreme Court justices in London ruled unanimously in favour of the unnamed Belfast resident, announcing that the police did have the legal power to stop the parades.

PSNI chief George Hamilton will be quizzed today by the Policing Board about the consequences of the judgment, although it is understood the session will not be open to the public.

A Policing Board spokesperson said: "Board Members will have the opportunity to question the Chief Constable on the Supreme Court Judgment at the Board meeting and any operational impacts for the PSNI as a result."

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.

In April 2014, a judge at the High Court in Belfast ruled in favour of the resident of the nationalist Short Strand area of east Belfast, who claimed the police's failure to stop unnotified 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. Yesterday, the justices said the PSNI had "misconstrued" its legal powers to stop parades passing through or adjacent to the Short Strand area. As permission for the loyalist marches was not sought from the Parades Commission adjudication body, the events were not lawful.

Yesterday, a PSNI spokesman said the force would study the judgment carefully.

He said: "The protracted period of protests, and associated disorder, was a challenging time for everyone in Northern Ireland.

"Throughout the months of the flag protests the over-riding concern of police was always the safety of all communities and the protection of life."

The chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, Mark Lindsay, said one reason the illegal Union flag protests were allowed to take place was because the PSNI didn't have sufficient numbers to stop them.

"As it was, we had more than 100 officers injured in serious street disorder. A below-strength service would not have had sufficient resilience to robustly deal with unnotified parades," he said. "Today is no different. In fact, we have fewer officers on the payroll now than we did in 2012."

SDLP justice spokesperson Alex Attwood said: "This is a very significant judgment from the highest court. It will have consequences for the police and others around parades and protests and places clear duties on the police.

"In responding to the judgment we should remember again and condemn the terrible impact that flag protests had on so many people and communities. The law is clear.

"The authority of the Parades Commission is clear. The acceptance of both by everyone is the best way to navigate through future parades and protests. No one should be found wanting - be it the public, the police or politicians."

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