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If PSNI focused less on handsome cops and more on Orange hall arsonists it would have better image

The targeting of Order's property must be taken seriously if police to restore faith, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 30/08/2016

Gordon Bryson, deputy master of LOL 482 Salterstown, examines the damage at its Orange Hall
Gordon Bryson, deputy master of LOL 482 Salterstown, examines the damage at its Orange Hall
Bobby Singleton

Once upon a time, if you saw a good-looking person on TV, you just turned to whoever was sitting next to you on the sofa, said "he's a bit of alright, isn't he?" or "she's not bad, eh?" and that was the end of it.

Now you can get out your smartphone and tweet the person on the screen directly to let them know that they weren't exactly at the back of the queue when God was handing out good looks. They probably knew it already, but everyone's ego needs a little boost now and then.

The latest recipient of such online attention was Detective Superintendent Bobby Singleton following his media appearances at the Tennent's Vital festival on Boucher Road in Belfast.

Hundreds of messages were left on the PSNI's Facebook page by female and male admirers, complimenting DS Singleton on being, as one put it, "the best looking policeman I've ever seen in Northern Ireland".

Imagine the almighty stink if a policewoman's physical attributes were subjected to this much scrutiny.

Still, it must have made a welcome relief for the force in the midst of a summer that has mainly brought bad news, culminating in Chief Constable George Hamilton's infamous "dry your eyes, do the job or move on" tweet about under-pressure officers.

If only the PSNI was equally skilled at getting good PR for actual policing reasons, such as bringing to book some of those who've been setting fire to Orange halls in a series of arson attacks this year.

Alas, so far there have been no convictions, and the attacks go on with shocking regularity in all six counties.

The latest was the destruction of Salterstown Orange hall in Ballyronan on the shores of Lough Neagh - the 21st such incident since January. That's approximately one every 11 days. One hall was targeted three times in a few weeks.

That's not even counting the paint and graffiti attacks which have also been taking place on Orange properties, all of which add to a sense of siege in the communities using them.

Because, as Nelson McCausland points out, it's not only Orangemen who are affected. These are shared spaces used by many in the wider locale for social events, keep fit classes and the like.

They're often one of the few suitable buildings in such under-funded areas where people can meet.

In the past these remote parts of the country were just names on the news.

A reporter would stand by the side of a quiet road, describing some incident that had happened, then it was over to the weather. Now anyone can use Google Maps to walk around these places for themselves.

Do so, and what you immediately notice is how remote many of these Orange halls are.

There might be a house or two nearby, or a farm over the next hill, but there's no CCTV or street lights, and few main roads nearby.

The chances of there being any witnesses in the middle of the night when these attacks take place are practically nil. It illustrates how easy it is to target such out of the way spots, and how easy to get away afterwards, before the blaze has even taken hold.

It's not only buildings which are damaged, or band regalia and instruments that might have been inside when the flames started, it's the very sense of security that these quiet communities need in order to feel safe. It also sends a clear message to similar communities that they're not safe either.

Perhaps arson doesn't attract a high priority from police because it's considered a "lesser" crime, but that's a shortsighted way of looking at it. These attacks are clearly not isolated incidents, they're organised, and they're being co-ordinated by extremely dangerous people. Mainstream republicans always used such low risk, low level activities as a way of keeping "volunteers" active between bigger operations. Their dissident admirers have clearly learned well. Far from being lesser crimes, this sectarian vandalism is the thin end of a wedge that leads to the worst imaginable atrocities, which is why it's important to nip it in the bud at the earliest opportunity.

Picking up the culprits would also enable police to build a better picture of the people getting involved in these hate crimes and on whose orders they're acting.

David Blevins' report last week for Sky News on the unsolved murders of the Troubles rightly drew praise for highlighting the way that victims and their families have been sidelined.

It's one of the worst failures of the political process that followed the signing of the Belfast Agreement that, nearly 20 years on, no one seems able to agree on how those who suffered most during the Troubles should have that suffering acknowledged.

These victims were asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, by consigning their pain to the past, but how can they do that, and why should they, when they can see the same mistakes being made all over again?

Blind eyes are turned. Awkward truths are brushed under the carpet for the sake of a quiet life. Policing and politics seem as entwined as ever, generally to the short-term benefit of politics rather than the long-term need for dependable policing.

It's no secret that there are long-standing tensions between the PSNI and the Orange Order over the policing of parades. Orangemen have not always behaved well in those disputes; the police are often over a barrel, damned by one side or another whatever they do.

But the spate of attacks on Orange halls is one instance where good, old-fashioned policing could help repair some of the damage, and it's hardly unreasonable for those affected to expect action. These are not victimless crimes.

McCausland has a point, after all, when he says that, had there been 21 attacks this year alone on churches, it would be considered a political and policing priority rather than a little local misfortune.

The desecration of Jewish graves at the City Cemetery made national and even some international headlines; there was a widespread sense of shame across Belfast.

Hate crimes directed against any group ought to prompt the same determination to identify and punish the perpetrators, because it's not that big a step from targeting Orange halls or Jewish graves or Catholic churches to attacking those who represent the symbols of a marginalised and belittled identity.

Stopping them now would be worth far more to the PSNI in good publicity than any number of pictures of handsome, well-groomed officers.

Belfast Telegraph

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