PSNI backed into political corner over flag protests
Whatever the solution to flag-related violence – now in its 87th day – it won't come at the end of a police baton, write John Topping and Jonny Byrne
Do you think this is China or something?" inquired one flag protester, under the impression that the PSNI's reaction to his part in an illegal protest was an undemocratic affront to the rule of law enjoyed by the collective which was blocking a road in east Belfast.
Indeed, while Northern Ireland is certainly not China, the suspension of objective reasoning related to 87 days of civil disorder is a nettle yet to be grasped in the midst of the political and policing hubris gripping our society.
It is apt to point out that, aside from ritual political mutterings, the PSNI has become the main focus of attention in both a local and global context, with the reputation of the country refracted through the lens of the riot shield.
But, in many respects, the current flag-related protests and parades have, at best, been used as an excuse by a large number of politicians to divert attention from their failures to effectively address the issues of segregation, socio-economic marginalisation and legacy, which have manifested in those communities where civil disorder has been most vociferous.
After years of remaining largely distinct from the ongoing peace and political processes, the inconvenient truth is that the PSNI have become embroiled in mopping up the unfinished business of politics in this country.
With the PSNI as the embodiment of agreement, reform and compromise over the past 15 years, it is ironic that the same political forces, which forged their existence in the first place, are now painting the police into a political corner.
While no one politician or party is to blame, the collective inertia from Stormont has done little except to sustain a less-violent version of the divided society which has always existed, with the PSNI becoming the policing referees of political failures.
This is particularly so from unionist quarters, engaged in a political end through policing means, on the one hand, publically decrying the Parades Commission, yet, on the other, expecting the PSNI to pick up the pieces.
Considering the example set by various political and community elements during the latter part of the 2012 parades season – where civil disobedience and a lack of adherence to Parades Commission determinations were the norm – one should not be surprised that such behaviours have set a tone, sending signals to the wider community that these actions are a viable means of challenging the fundamental rule of law.
And, while this is not to contest legitimate political grievances, the consequences of how they are being played out in relation to the flags protests simply cannot continue. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the PSNI and wider society cannot shoulder the cost of political intransigence manifest in the flag protests.
With policing costs spiralling to nearly £16m, not to mention 144 officers injured to date, quite what more we could, or should, expect from one the most accountable and human rights-compliant police services in the world is anyone's guess.
This is certainly not to absolve police of responsibility for consequences of operational decisions which have inflamed tensions as part of the flag protests.
Indeed, it is unhelpful for the PSNI to justify operational decisions through claims that 20,000 people could suddenly sweep on to the streets if they make a wrong decision in sweeping them off.
And whether the PSNI is guilty of the charge, propagated from nationalist quarters, that they are 'facilitating illegal parades' is only something that a degree in hindsight can answer.
But it is important to recognise that senior PSNI commanders have publically stated that they do not have the capacity to deal with the flag protests in the often-dealistic manner demanded of them.
As the chief constable, Matt Baggott, has admitted that, even with double the number of officers, it would still be mission impossible.
Let us not forget that 'normal' crime and terrorist threats cannot conveniently be set aside in the interim.
PSNI officers are there to serve the community, yet the continued failures by the political elites to move beyond 'managing and containing' the flag protests only serves to distance the organisation from that role.
Essentially, we have regressed to the default status quo over the flags issue: one in which the Government is quite content to tip millions of pounds into the firefighting of political and social problems through security and policing solutions; one where the absence of violence is a perverse sign of 'peace'.
If there is to be a resolution to the current impasse, it will not come from the end of a baton.
Politicians, community leaders and even parents, whose children are embroiled in the daily protests, need to consider why, 15 years on, they believe their expectations around a new Northern Ireland have not been met.
To continue to gaze at the PSNI for simultaneous condemnation and solution is just a red herring, delaying the political action required.