Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Besieged Baggott the whipping boy in flags fallout

The protests represent a policing headache for the chief constable. But could politicians do more to help, asks Deborah McAleese

Matt Baggott is a man who always appears uncomfortable in front of the cameras. But there have been times over the past few weeks that the Chief Constable has looked downright exasperated as he tried to explain the police response to flag protests to the public.

Perhaps it is because Baggott feels he is caught in an impossible policing situation. Perhaps it is because he feels, once again, that the police have been left to pick up the pieces of another political mess.

The problem with this political mess is that, eight weeks and 129 injured officers later, there is no sign of it untangling itself any time soon.

While police officers are being petrol-bombed on the streets, the PSNI is being blamed for not bringing an end to a situation that it did not create.

But when there is a breakdown in law and order, it is the job of the police to restore it.

This current breakdown of law and order is now being referred to by protesters - and at times the police - as "civil disobedience".

The mother delayed from collecting her child from day-care, the husband jeered trying to visit his dying wife in hospital or the GP prevented from making a house call to a sick cancer patient will probably have a different term for it.

The public is becoming increasingly frustrated that the PSNI is not simply moving in and shifting protesters off the streets.

But Baggott is adamant that public safety must come first and that to make large-scale arrests at these protests would be simply too dangerous.

He has also dismissed criticism that the PSNI should have nipped the disorder in the bud earlier - warning that to do so would have inflamed the situation.

"Had we been over-zealous and just gone and tried to move people off the roads... we might have ended up with 10,000, 20,000 or even more on the streets," he told the Commons Northern Ireland affairs committee yesterday.

Baggott is not an impulsive man. His operational decisions will have been made methodically, following hours, days and weeks of talks with officers who policed during the Troubles.

With a lack of political assistance, it is understandable that he will be very cautious in his approach. He does not want to become the chief constable accused of turning the clock back in Northern Ireland.

But, while we have not seen thousands of officers flooding the streets and physically clearing protesters, we are now beginning to see arrests following weeks of painstaking evidence-gathering.

However, this toughening-up of tactics has led to accusations from loyalists that police are being too heavy-handed, while republicans say they are still being too soft.

Just days earlier, the chief constable found himself the subject of vilification among loyalists after he apologised to residents in nationalist Short Strand when their windows were broken by protesters.

Loyalists accused him of never apologising to them when their homes were attacked by republicans.

"If he apologises to one side, then the other side wants an apology.

"He then gets criticised because one apology is not as big as the other," a senior police source said.

The constant barrage of condemnation from all sides must be frustrating. But so, too, must be the stumbling blocks that the PSNI has been coming across when looking for support in dealing with this situation.

When trying to bring cases against a number of people using social media sites to organise disorder and post inflammatory messages, the PSNI forwarded 40 files to the Public Prosecution Service - only to be told they did not pass the evidential test.

And, in spite of the PSNI raising concerns with the Parades Commission about the holding of an illegal parade by protesters every Saturday from the City Hall to east Belfast, the commission has yet to become involved.

All the while, the clock is ticking and the volatile marching season rapidly approaches.

Add to that the G8, the World Police and Fire Games and the All-Ireland Fleadh, and 2013 is probably going to be the most challenging year ever for the already over-stretched PSNI.

And it will not be long before the impact on other areas of policing become apparent.

The PSNI is equipped for peace-time policing, but Northern Ireland's politicians have failed to move the province forward and the mess from that is being left to the PSNI to clean up.

With just over 7,000 police officers - compared with more than 15,000 and Army support a decade ago - the current pressure on the PSNI is not sustainable.

The crisis facing policing could not have been made any clearer than when Baggott admitted yesterday to the Northern Ireland affairs committee that he needed more officers.

"I am concerned about the long-term resilience of the organisation... It is inevitable that we would need more police officers," he warned.

The chief constable will be hoping that, on this occasion, Northern Ireland's politicians are listening.

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