PSNI approach hard to stomach for unionists, but it wins propaganda war
Fifty masked men and women in paramilitary uniforms marching through the centre of Coalisland is, on one level, a propaganda coup for dissident republicanism.
On the back of the Continuity IRA-linked parade passing through north Lurgan at the weekend it demonstrates a brazen attempt by hardline republicans to put it up to the PSNI. On one level, such sights appear to expose the PSNI's apparent weakness on the streets of nationalist redoubts in Northern Ireland.
Indeed, the police's absence in the Tyrone and Armagh towns seems to many to illustrate an unwillingness by the PSNI high command to physically confront dissidents and their supporters in street confrontations across the north of Ireland.
Furthermore, a picture doing the rounds on Facebook over the Easter weekend allegedly shows a police officer with his foot on the bottom rung of a ladder while a republican erects a tricolour flying above a pub facing Belfast's Milltown Cemetery. That will heighten unionist suspicions that the PSNI's policy over the 1916 centenary commemorations is one of soft appeasement.
However, there is a counter argument here which contends that such hands-off policing may be logical and more productive than moving in wielding batons and with plastic bullet rounds flying through the air. What if the PSNI had physically confronted the 50 masked marchers in the heart of republican Coalisland or the northern end of Lurgan? What would a robust police operation designed to break up such a gathering have achieved in the short term?
Some unionists addicted to the knee-jerk response would have no doubt been delighted to see police riot squad officers clashing with the marchers and their supporters, and dragging legions of the republican hardliners into PSNI Land Rovers. But the critics of this policy of 'distance and watch' the PSNI seems to be employing forget one crucial thing - the alternative is exactly what the dissident republican leaderships want.
It would have been a far greater propaganda coup for the New IRA or Continuity IRA if there had been serious street disorder involving their followers and the PSNI on Saturday and Sunday. Scenes of blood pouring from republicans attending these events or being dragged across the ground by heavily armoured and armed police officers dressed like ninjas would have been exploited by the political factions of anti-ceasefire republicanism.
It would prove, in their eyes at least, that the PSNI is no different from the old RUC and its reputation for 'cold steel' confrontation with previous generations of republicans.
Widespread parade-linked violence is also a 'graduate school experience' for would-be and wannabe young paramilitary recruits where they are effectively 'blooded' on the streets.
Senior police officers have promised they will use images from these demonstrations to prosecute in retrospect those who flaunted the law during these parades. Unionist critics will charge that such a policy is a cop-out, an act of politically-correct policing.
But the republican rejectionists were spoiling for a street fight during these Easter commemorations and the PSNI quite correctly didn't give them one.