Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

This blame game has rivalries and egos at its heart, not a piece of cloth

It was was another of those eyesore and high-cost policing operations. Yet another Saturday in Belfast disrupted by this weekly flag protest that marches in and out of the city centre.

And it doesn’t walk alone.

Its journey from the east of the city and back in that direction is steered by police officers — hundreds of them, in vehicles and on foot.

And it feels like the marching season has begun months before its time, yet there is no sign of the Parades Commission — and still no obvious light at the end of this long protest tunnel.

Money is running down the drain — millions and millions of pounds of police money.

Not far from the City Hall people went about their Saturday shopping.

At Victoria Square they sat in the coffee shops and outside the pubs, paying little or no attention to the few hundred protesters on their walk back towards the Newtownards Road.

The novelty factor is wearing off this protest, and yet it is happening at huge cost — to policing, in lost trade and in the battered image of Belfast that is being displayed .

Watching as the march reached the lower Newtownards Road close to St Matthew’s Catholic Church, there seemed to be more police in attendance than protesters.

This place has been scarred by riots in recent weeks — by street violence that has since been switched off as quickly as it was switched on.

There are those who deny it, but the paramilitary organisations still seem to have that type of control.

What other explanation is there?

But there is still a fear factor, and therefore the need for the type of policing numbers we are still seeing.

There was also a police presence inside the small nationalist community of the Short Strand, where senior republicans were also on the ground.

As I walked, I heard police sirens and then saw the flashing lights heading in the direction of the Holywood Arches.

News would later emerge from that area of a tense standoff and an arrest.

Then, a tweet from the PUP leader Billy Hutchinson saying he was seeking “an urgent meeting” with the PSNI — a meeting scheduled for teatime Monday evening.

“People’s human rights would not be abused more in a police state,” Hutchinson wrote.

And, yet there is another and a very different argument — that the police have stood back for too long as roads have been blocked and illegal marches have taken place; an argument that the policing approach has been “softly-softly”.

It has been more robust in recent days, and with the changing tactics there have been allegations of “police brutality” — words used by the PUP leader on his Twitter account.

It is not the first time that such allegations have been made and they have been rejected by the Chief Constable and other senior officers.

On Friday night in Newtownabbey petrol bombs were found after an attack on the police — and in this particular neck of the woods loyalists are blaming a breakaway UDA brigade for the violence.

The police have been left to tidy up another political mess — and, so far, there is no sense of a Plan B.

In recent days, first church leaders and then the First Minister have been involved in talks in east Belfast.

But the protesters are involved in a blame game in which it’s everyone else’s fault — the police, politicians, churches and media.

There is more to this row than a flag.

Inside a fragmented community, we are watching egos and rivalries at play.

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