Are PSNI sitting ducks or calculating drakes?
Police riot control tactics have been criticised for not being aggressive enough. But is their strategy a smarter way to quell public disorder and secure convictions, asks Alan Murray
The debate over the PSNI's riot-control policy rages on, with Lord Morrow arguing that the more passive police strategy allows rioters to expend minimum energy and inflict damage with impunity. On the contrary, containment yields the best outcome overall, argues the SDLP's Conall McDevitt.
Long gone are the 1970s Army-style snatch squads, whose batons flailed upon heads leaving men and sometimes women bloodied, never to be mentioned again.
The plastic bullet more or less eliminated the snatch squads and provided a medium-distance - if sometimes deadly - riot-control strategy.
'Baton-round strategy', as some called it, was at its height during the brutal hunger strike period, when rioting reached a frequency and a ferocity not seen since the early days of the Troubles when an overwhelmed and eventually wearied RUC fought the 'Battle of the Bogside' and lost.
But does any element actually win our street battles now? The energy is expended, the streets are briefly ablaze with petrol, then most go home and council workers arrive dutifully in the morning to sweep the streets and remove the debris. Streets are not purged, or territory conquered, anymore.
Watching the PSNI dealing with the rioting in east Belfast last week, the inescapable distinction between Belfast and London was evident.
The pushing back of the crowds and the sometimes hand-to-hand combat over the top of, or between, heavy perspex riot shields that happens in London didn't happen in Belfast. With 29,000 officers, the Metropolitan Police can summon hundreds of additional officers in minutes; the PSNI can't.
When close-quarters restraint was employed at Ardoyne last July, a number of PSNI officers - including a woman constable - sustained serious and costly injuries.
But in the form of the iconic armoured Land Rover, the police here have a seemingly indestructible tool. Petrol-bombs and pipe-bombs make no impact on its sturdy hide. The vehicles protect officers and form a near-impregnable line against which rioters can vent their fury with little result.
Corralling rioters on the Newtownards Road last week using the now brightly-painted bulletproof vehicles was a primary objective of PSNI commanders. Within that strategy, preventing the youthful loyalist mob from entering the grounds of the nearby St Matthews Catholic church was the key objective for the PSNI.
Damage to the church, or a further incursion by loyalists into the Mountpottinger area via the church grounds, would have been regarded as a failure that would have had major political repercussions for the force as a whole.
Why water-cannon weren't deployed earlier is a valid question for the PSNI to answer, given the relatively wide thoroughfare at the city end of the Newtownards Road.
Narrow streets are not for water cannon, but tactically the riot terrain last week afforded the opportunity to pound the youthful rioters with gallons of water to quell their ardour.
Why long-enduring foul, odorous dyes are not discharged with the water is a tactical mystery that escapes me. Presumably, their absence is linked in some arcane way to a rioter's human rights.
But the tactic employed by PSNI commanders in east Belfast last week easily lends itself to the critical observation that police officers 'are sitting in their Land Rovers doing nothing'.
We are assured, or rather the Policing Board has been assured, that such a trite observation is unfounded. SDLP board member Conall McDevitt is satisfied that the PSNI is in a position to ensure that "people identified" will be prosecuted successfully.
A large number of people who rioted at Ardoyne last year have been prosecuted on the basis of video evidence and police testimony and some yet to be sentenced could be handed lengthy jail terms.
So is the strategy of police sitting tight in their Land Rovers - manoeuvring tactically to hem in rioters rather than sallying forth on foot to snatch six or seven of their adversaries - the better option?
Sitting tight in an armoured vehicle prevents police injuries, as well as embarrassing failed forays to arrest. It does not greatly inflame already-charged situations.
And if video footage is of sufficient clarity, and the supporting evidence compelling, then surely the tactic makes for a better overall strategy, the argument goes.
Lord Morrow thinks not. He and many others are demanding a more "aggressive" policy, but at what cost?
During rioting in Ardoyne a couple of years ago, many PSNI officers suffered terrible injuries - some career-threatening. In the aftermath, it was suggested that political intervention from the NIO had deferred the use of baton rounds.
That episode, coupled with the injuries to officers sustained in last year's Ardoyne rioting, serves as a warning of the costs of exposing small numbers of officers to barrages of potentially-deadly missiles.
Also: police engaging in hand-to-hand fighting with rioters would be a spectacle for television news, but would it be either the best image of the PSNI to be beamed around the world, or the best use of officers - some of whom could be hospitalised for months and retired on medical grounds?
If scores of prosecutions ensue from the Newtownards Road riots, then the PSNI's strategy will perhaps be vindicated.
If the rioters are not hauled before the courts, then more will support Lord Morrow's demand for less-passive policing.