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Editor's Viewpoint: We must no longer pander to protests

Published 15/01/2013

The Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, and his officers deserve great praise from this community for continuing to stand firm amidst the most dreadful - and pointless - violence which is directed at them nightly.

First Minister Peter Robinson also merits credit for his unequivocal denunciation of those who have brought parts of this province to a virtual standstill, injuring scores of police officers and costing hard-pressed businesses thousands of pounds of loss at a time when they are struggling to survive.

Yet, with that most perfect vision, hindsight, there remains the feeling that maybe more could have been done, and done earlier, by both men which might have increased the impact of their actions and words. Political reaction to the flag protests floundered until the demonstrations and violence gained a momentum which is now difficult to reverse. Legitimate political condemnation of the democratic decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall was seized upon by those with a more sinister agenda to excuse their violent excesses.

And the fact that a mere handful of protesters could bring main traffic arteries to a standstill begs the question of whether the police should have insisted on keeping roads open. Is a protest really peaceful if it stops people, who want no part of it, going about their lawful business and should the PSNI not first consider the rights of the non-protesters over those who wish to demonstrate? That is not to diminish in any way the force's courageous efforts in the face of life-threatening attacks by petrol bombs and other weapons, chiefly in east Belfast. Those are protests of a totally different magnitude.

The activities of the protesters have now earned them the opprobrium of the vast majority of people right across the province. There is a political consensus that the protesters' actions are wrong and should halt immediately. And that should be backed up by a strategic policing approach ensuring, where possible, that protesters are prevented from blocking main routes. No one wants to inflame the situation but neither - as Peter Robinson says - should mobocracy rule.

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