Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

The big players need to tread carefully around the bit players

There is something a little disquieting about the PSNI’s strategy of printing thousands of leaflets bearing photographs of 21 young people whom they wish to question about disorder on the streets.

Barrister Michael Mansfield has raised controversy and the ire of many people here by questioning the tactics — even though he says he understands the PSNI face a difficult dilemma.

The rights of minors in our society are enshrined most strictly in law. Their identities in the eyes of the judicial system are protected to the hilt — even when they commit the most heinous of crimes.

For example, the identity of two 11-year-olds convicted of the rape of a young girl in England was protected by the court recently.

The media is also subject to a rigid code of conduct relating to interviewing or photographing children without specific parental or school permission.

The PSNI says, in its defence, that photographing faces, printing leaflets and releasing pictures to the media of youngsters allegedly seen on the streets during the recent disturbances, is a last resort.

However, we need to be careful that our absolute abhorrence of sectarian street disorder does not distort the need for justice to be seen to be done to the letter of the law.

Undoubtedly the practice of publishing faces is supported by many people tired of and sickened by the wanton behaviour of troublemakers during the summer. But the failure of the PSNI to identify the culprits in any other way than distributing photographic leaflets suggests the police have some way to go to win community co-operation in certain areas of Northern |Ireland.

Why are people in these areas not more forthcoming? Could community leaders and local politicians do more to support the PSNI to find the troublemakers by other means?

The scenes this summer do not augur well for the future. Pushing identify leaflets through letter-boxes seems a rather desperate strategy.

Mr Mansfield, who has a famous reputation as a radical lawyer, says there is the risk of a serious injustice.

In response, the PSNI says its methods are robustly compliant with human rights legislation.

If there is the slightest doubt surrounding the leaflet strategy, it should be withdrawn. No one should have any sympathy for rioters no matter how young they are, but neither must the PSNI overstep the legal and human rights mark in any way.

Northern Ireland cannot escape the UK-wide economic purge on public spending. While slack exists in the system and money can be saved, Whitehall should be careful.

The peace process is not out |of the woods. Politics remains fragile. If the Assembly election takes place next May after a winter of slashing public expenditure and adding to the dole queues here, the cost could far outweigh any savings.

The message from Northern Ireland to David Cameron and Nick Clegg must be: tread very carefully. Do nothing which could set back the clock. Pound-wise will be penny-foolish if peace and stability are casualties of the cuts.

So what are we to make of the first 100 days of the Cameron-Clegg coalition? So far so good, but we ain’t seen nothing yet.

David Cameron does not exude Margaret Thatcher’s sergeant major style, yet he has arguably a bigger fight on his hands than she had.

She took on the unions and won. He promises a sweeping reform of our society, but comes across as more of a polite Hugh Grant than a tough Daniel Craig.

So far the public mood seems to be in Cameron’s camp, yet that will surely change for the worse after October 20 when the full scale of the coalition’s cuts are revealed.

The winter of discontent in 1979 ended with James Callaghan’s government hitting the buffers and the Iron Lady waving her handbag in authoritarian control.

The coming months promise similar social and political unrest for the fledgling partnership of Cameron and Clegg.

At this stage, it’s hard to tell which one has sacrificed most principle to ensure goodwill and compromise between them.

However, the history of coalitions suggests that the big player eventually eats up the bit player which would be bad news for the Lib Dem party.

When the going gets tough in the autumn, the strains will show. We can expect signs of dissent and division between the parties and possibly even resignations.

Where it will end, no one can tell. The winter of 1979 may have nothing on the winter of 2010.

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