Ormeau clash at Junior Orange march fuels fears of anti-loyalist conspiracy
The PSNI adopts a 'softly, softly' approach to illegal dissident republican marches in Lurgan, Londonderry and Coalisland, but uses CS spray after a legal loyalist band parade in Belfast. Is this two-tier policing in action, asks Henry McDonald
Just 24 hours ago, writing in this newspaper, I defended the Police Service of Northern Ireland's decision to avoid a physical confrontation with masked republican dissidents on the march in Coalisland and Londonderry.
The logic of this defence was that, had the PSNI battered their way through the hundreds of republican supporters gathered at these venues over the Easter holidays to stop these paramilitary displays, it would have gifted the New IRA and Continuity IRA the very thing they sought most: street disorder in front of the televisions cameras and images of passers-by, as well as participants in the parades, pouring with blood and being dragged off onto pavements and into Land Rovers.
What a difference a day makes. The very scenario that the PSNI carefully and rationally avoided in the face of the machismo marching of the hardline republican factions was acted out elsewhere in the region... only, this time, in south Belfast and involving loyalist marchers, including young children.
It appears that the PSNI over-reacted to bandsmen buffeting against cars lining the Ormeau Road, resulting in police officers moving in to make arrests and, in the process, discharging CS spray that temporarily blinded and injured, among others, junior Orangemen and children.
Surely, if it is right to explain (and excuse) the PSNI's reticence in charging with batons and shields into the ranks of the republican dissidents, then it is equally justified in questioning what - at its most generous - appears to have been a completely disproportionate response to the actions of a few bandsmen from the South Belfast Young Conquerors in Ballynafeigh.
The PSNI was not moving in to separate local loyalists from any nationalist demonstrators, or to prevent the former crossing the Ormeau Bridge to "invade" the nationalist end of the road.
This was an incident contained within the south end of the bridge - albeit in an area that is one of the most socially integrated and tolerant parts of Northern Ireland.
Nonetheless, you do not have to be a unionist, a loyalist, or a Protestant to be concerned about the apparent heavy-handed approach of the PSNI policing of this particular parade.
Nor do you have to sympathise with the loyal orders' stance on banned marches, such as the embargo on them parading past the Lower Ormeau (they forfeited that "right" the day some of their supporters taunted the population there about the massacre at Sean Graham's bookmakers), or Drumcree, to be uneasy about the way the bandsmen and their followers were treated on Tuesday.
Indeed, anyone who believes in the vital checks and balances needed to be imposed on the state (including its police force), as well as the defence of civil liberties, should be alarmed by the actions of the PSNI.
Perhaps more disturbing in the longer term is the perception being created within the unionist-loyalist community that, while the PSNI applies a "softly-softly" approach towards those extreme republicans who support the murder of their police colleagues, it is open season as far as loyalists are concerned.
Loyalist and unionist critics of PSNI parading policy will point not only to the non-intervention of the police in halting illegal displays of masked paramilitarism in counties Londonderry and Tyrone, but also to the sight of a police officer apparently with his foot on the rung of a ladder while a man put up a tricolour on the Glen Road in west Belfast at the weekend.
In addition, the loyalist and unionist community will look across the border to Dublin, where a Garda officer was pictured yanking up the mask of a uniformed republican marcher so his face would not be covered up in case police decided to take court action against those participating.
They will - and are already - drawing the conclusion that while the Garda Siochana cannot - and will not - tolerate brazen displays of masked paramilitary menace on the streets of Dublin, the PSNI appeases these same factions on the streets of Londonderry, or Coalisland.
Yes, there is sound policing logic in not going in all plastic baton guns blazing into the middle of republican dissident gatherings in Northern Ireland. The south is a different society from Northern Ireland, where the Garda Siochana commands almost universal support.
The force's historic success is rooted in the fact that, since the Irish Civil War, the Garda has established a reputation for being politically neutral and above those type of partisan concerns.
By contrast, policing in Northern Ireland remains - sadly, for such a divided society - still highly political.
The upshot of these double standards in parade policing is to potentially inflame tempers around the Ulster loyalist marching season, which begins traditionally at Easter time.
There are already inflammatory remarks being made across social media networks, calling for the social ostracisation of police officers, most of whom still live - for obvious reasons - in unionist areas.
It is, of course, up to loyalist and unionist political and community leaders to lower the temperature in flashpoint zones throughout the marching season. Widespread violence and disorder connected to the small number of contentious parades is not only wrong, but from a unionist-loyalist perspective is wholly counter-productive.
This writer has always tended towards the cock-up rather than conspiracy view of the world, and the former may certainly be the case regarding the events on the Upper Ormeau Road this week.
Regardless of what animated police officers to behave the way they did, resulting in children as young as six with blister burns on their lips and eyes, the Police Ombudsman should investigate this incident with full forensic vigour.
Nothing excuses the injuries caused to police officers during the incident in Ballynafeigh this week. There can no room for ifs or buts on that issue. But the PSNI has come out of the Easter season with a PR disaster of its own making. They, too, should act as robustly as the Police Ombudsman and discipline any officers who over-reacted on Tuesday.
Because the upshot of failing to do so would ensure the own-goal that police scored on the Ormeau Road could come back to rebound, not only on them, but on the rest of Northern Ireland society this marching season.