Belfast Telegraph

Public confidence in police ‘has hit rock bottom’ over flag blockade inaction

By Deborah McAleese

Public confidence in the PSNI “has hit rock bottom” because officers are not clearing protesters off the roads, it has been claimed.

Policing expert Dr Graham Ellison, a senior lecturer in criminology at Queen’s University, said that the PSNI cannot continue to allow Northern Ireland to be held to ransom by the protesters.

“It is increasingly damaging for the PSNI in terms of public confidence by not moving the protesters on. This is a problem that has been whipped up by certain politicians. But if this continues, the PSNI is going to have to make some very tough calls.

“The PSNI is caught between alienating the entire Northern Ireland public by not moving people off the roads. On the other hand, if they do, that could result in even more people coming out onto the streets,” said Dr Ellison.

The loyalist protests, which have caused disruption across many parts of Northern Ireland with roadblocks and outbreaks of rioting, are now in their sixth week with no end is in sight.

On Friday 4,000 people took part in protests across Northern Ireland in what was dubbed by organisers as “Operation Standstill”.

In some instances just a handful of protesters could be seen blocking some main roads in Belfast, including Great Victoria Street, while officers watched on.

Chief Constable Matt Baggott on Monday defended the policing tactics used and insisted that public safety must come first.

“There is a lot of speculation as to why police are not out there simply sweeping people off the streets. Even when the PSNI was 12,000 strong it would not have been possible to take such a rigid approach,” said Mr Baggott.

“What we are keen to do is keep hospitals and arterial routes open wherever possible. We put safety first, make sure the right to protest is upheld wherever possible and we preserve our resources for dealing with the most serious outbreaks of violence.”

The persistent rioting — as well as an increasing number of public order situations in recent months — have been placing intense pressure on the PSNI.

Dr Ellison warned that public order “could break” the PSNI and said that a dedicated riot squad, like in France or other continental forces, may be necessary: “No police force — unless very oppressive tactics are used — can maintain a public order situation much beyond a couple of days.

“Some people are saying that it may well be that Patten got it wrong, that there should have been a separate public order unit set-up. The PSNI’s (riot units) are relatively small in terms of overall percentage of officers. Officers dealing with these protests are being pulled in from all sides of the force,” he said.

“Do we need an expanded riot squad that deals with public order and only public order, like you find in France and other continental forces? It is something I would have been opposed to a few years ago, but people have to be allowed to go about their normal lives.”

As PSNI detectives trawl through hours of CCTV footage of rioters involved in the recent violence in east Belfast, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey, the Chief Constable warned that police will soon be knocking on their doors.

“There are significant numbers of detectives working on this and to those committed to rioting and violence I would say: ‘Don’t make it worse because the knock on the door is coming’.

“There are many people within our footage who we are identifying. We have already made over 100 arrests and there will be many more,” vowed Mr Baggott.

Criminology lecturer at the University of Ulster, Dr John Topping, said that the PSNI should target those organising illegal protests on social media sites.

“Incitement to violence on social media sites like Facebook was dealt with very robustly by police in England during the riots there. We have not seen that here. I can only imagine that this is an avenue to be pursued,” he said.

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