I don't think loyalist Union flag protest marchers will stick to time slot, says senior police officer
Thousands of flag protesters will ignore a marching deadline imposed by the Parades Commission in Belfast this weekend, police believe.
And in the build-up to Saturday's planned march from City Hall to Woodvale there has been an escalation in a war-of-words involving Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and senior loyalists.
PUP leader Billy Hutchinson yesterday labelled Mr McGuinness "deluded" after he accused the UVF of organising the controversial city centre protest.
"IRA intelligence has gone down the tubes if that's what he believes," Mr Hutchinson told this newspaper.
And he said the Deputy First Minister needed to understand that: "Loyalists are the British presence."
Police monitoring the build-up to Saturday's march – organised under the banner Loyal Peaceful Protesters – have plans for "a very significant operation" if needed.
But the hope is that officers in high-visibility yellow jackets can be used rather than police in full riot kit.
"We will have plenty of hidden assets," one senior officer commented, "and the hope is that we don't have to show them."
He said the police approach is about "trying to keep tension down".
"If we can get them (the protesters) in and out without any damage or major disruption, that is the best we can do," the senior officer added.
The march comes one year on from the Belfast City Council vote to reduce the flying of the Union flag to designated days. In its ruling, the Parades Commission said the march should leave City Hall by noon and clear the junction of Royal Avenue and North Street 30 minutes later.
"I don't think they (the protesters) will stick to the timings," the senior PSNI officer said.
And that means part of the city centre will be choked during the key pre-Christmas lunchtime shopping period.
Earlier this week senior police met representatives of the Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) community at Newforge – part of a series of meetings aimed at rebuilding relationships broken in the fall-out from flag protests and the marching standoff in north Belfast.
Members of the UDA-linked UPRG on the Shankill attended, as did PUP representatives.
But one loyalist dismissed the police meeting as "a charm offensive".
The Deputy First Minister's claim that the UVF is behind the protest has stoked tensions, it is claimed.
Senior police sources say they have no information to point to "organisational organisation", but add that members of paramilitary groups will have "free passes" to attend.
Responding to the comments from Mr McGuinness, Mr Hutchinson said: "I am very clear the man is deluded.
"Martin needs to be very careful about his language when he talks about the so-called Progressive Unionist Party."
He added: "He is creating a bigger gulf between the loyalist and nationalist communities."