Police handling of the loyalist flag protests in the months at the beginning of last year drew a lot of criticism from ordinary law abiding citizens who felt the PSNI were not doing enough to confront those who were taking part in illegal marches and blockades of public roads. The critics now have the full backing of the courts, it appears, after a judge yesterday ruled that the police were mistaken in their belief that their hands were bound to an extent by legislation including human rights laws.
Mr Justice Treacy ruled that the police had the powers to stop illegal parades and arrest participants.
The judge's verdict was very critical of the PSNI's approach and highlighted the fact that three months after the illegal protests began, only six people had been arrested for offences under the relevant legislation. But now the Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, has introduced another reason for the police inertia – they did not want to escalate the problem given the tension created by the parades and the scale of the protest.
This newspaper has long recognised that the police are often placed in an invidious position by the sometimes perceived lack of political leadership in the province.
Too often, political debate stirs up emotions and police are left to control the ensuing trouble, frequently caught in the middle of opposing factions and being criticised unfairly by both.
However, the PSNI must take on board this court ruling. It now knows what its legal powers are and it is up to senior officers to make operational decisions depending on the context of the problems they face.
With the marching season fast approaching, the force must ensure that it never again appears to be standing impotently on the sidelines while law-breakers take over the streets.
Its response to the flag protests was too slow with arrests and prosecutions only taking place long after the alleged offences.
There is no perfect template for policing, but the vast majority of people in this province want to see the PSNI exercise its primacy on the streets and put the criminals in the dock.