Belfast Telegraph

'Resentment' over flags policing

Loyalist resentment about the policing of 2013 flags protests in Northern Ireland still persists, an independent watchdog said.

Many demonstrators against Belfast City Council restrictions on the flying of the Union flag from the City Hall received criminal records and some felt they had been unfairly arrested, security powers reviewer David Seymour added.

The young generation believed the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was a middle class force which did not empathise with the working class, according to the review.

A Court of Appeal judgement has upheld the PSNI's policing of the demonstrations, which involved sustained rioting for months, and overall confidence in the force is on the increase, the chief constable has said.

Mr Seymour's report said: "It is clear that the legacy of the flags protests in 2013 still lingers and this has consequences for confidence in policing in 2014."

Dozens of police officers were injured during clashes with protesters across Northern Ireland following a December 2012 council vote.

Loyalists were angered by Belfast City Council's decision to reduce to designated days the number of dates on which the Union flag flies.

Nationalists at Belfast City Council had wanted the contentious emblem taken down altogether, but accepted a compromise from the Alliance Party that it would fly on designated days.

Unionists considered the changes an attack on their cultural identity.

A loyalist protest outside the City Hall erupted into violence minutes after the motion was passed. Disorder also broke out in east Belfast.

The Court of Appeal held that the PSNI had acted appropriately, within its operational discretion, and had not misunderstood its legal obligations during the protests which followed.

Mr Seymour said: "However, despite that legal vindication, many people have told me that the PSNI response should have been sharper and more proactive and that these events were predictable and should have been anticipated once Belfast City Council had taken its decision.

He added: "Many people acquired a criminal record as a result of that operation and the protracted nature of the protests exacerbated community tensions.

"I have been struck by how resentment over the handling of those protests persists, particularly amongst young people.

"To an outside observer there is a marked contrast between the policing of the flags protests in 2013 and of the parades during the parading season in 2014."

Last summer's loyalist marching season passed off peacefully following close engagement between officers and community workers.

Mr Seymour said: "There were no misunderstandings or surprises and everyone knew where they stood. In the former case there were no ground rules other than the general criminal and public order law and little opportunity to plan or consult."

The chief constable's report to the Policing Board last October stated that confidence in the PSNI continues to rise to 67.1% - a 2% increase on the same period last year.

Mr Seymour said parts of the community, including many young people, were wary of and resented police contact.

"There is perceived inconsistency of approach. I heard it said many times that confidence in policing is hard won and easily lost.

"More than one person operating at community level told me that the progress and hard work of months can unravel in minutes if a single PSNI intervention goes wrong."

Former chief constable Matt Baggott has said if one incident goes wrong it takes 14 good incidents to redress the balance.

Mr Seymour noted a contrast between relationships with local police and heavily armoured public order officers.

"It is in the nature of part of the Tactical Support Group's role that on occasion they have to police in a robust fashion. One senior police officer recognised that there was 'some scope for soft skill work'."

One community worker said that, although there was less violence on the streets, young people were still having to endure very poor social conditions, the review noted.

"Consequently some were finding an identity by attaching themselves to criminal gangs and earning money, with the approval of their families, by dealing in drugs."

Some young people said they threw missiles at the police for fun, Mr Seymour said.

Community leaders from nationalist and unionist backgrounds wanted the PSNI to take a more proactive approach to drug dealing, considering formal criminal processes slow and cumbersome.

"However, at the same time, they did not want to see young people criminalised unnecessarily and stopped and searched 'for standing on a street corner'.

"One observer said that in west Belfast there were no other places for young people to congregate - but the stop and search powers should not be used as a form of 'social control' or to 'harass'."

Mr Seymour recommended progress in improving transparency and explanation of the use of stop and search powers; the introduction of body worn cameras and improved relations with young people.

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said: "Engagement with communities is at the core of keeping people safe. The PSNI have always committed significant thought and effort into sustaining and building relationships with every community. In particular, substantial work has been dedicated to those communities who were so significantly impacted by tensions during the flag protests and this continues.

"Engagement is a two-way process and there is a long-term responsibility on both the police and elected representatives to make sure that we do everything we can to build confidence and support in policing.

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