Northern Ireland's rival politicians are not moving quickly enough to develop a shared future to help ease tensions on the streets, a senior police officer claimed today.
Police have been left filling the gap because mature leadership is absent, Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Superintendent Nigel Grimshaw added.
Weeks of loyalist protests followed the December 3 decision of Belfast City Council to limit the flying of the Union flag from the city hall and there has been serious violence from dissident republicans against police in the city after loyal order parades.
Mr Grimshaw said: "Surely the maturing of political dialogue coupled with a move away from the threat of violence must be major elements in delivering the shared future that we all so much need, for in its absence there are others who will seek to create and occupy their own spaces and there will be a continued need for short term policing solutions in the absence of genuine, confident societal change."
Police have become used to being the meat in sandwich when it comes to conflict, dispute and protest, he said.
"But it is the view of the (Superintendents') Association that the time has long since passed for those with influence at political, civic and community level to change the appetites of people across this society once and for all," he added.
"In our view that can only happen when we see the firm outworkings of a commitment to a shared future. It does seem that the realisation of the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy is further away than ever."
Many police officers have been injured and 240 people arrested during protests against the flag decision which turned violent. Police used water cannons to fend off rioters in parts of East Belfast after the council voted to only fly the flag on designated days rather than every day. The trouble continued from before Christmas into January.
Mr Grimshaw told his association's annual conference in Belfast the law surrounding public processions by street demonstrators should be reviewed.
He added: "What does concern me however is the lack of progress in our society that necessitates the police being put in these positions in the first place."
That lack of progress can manifest itself within party political, institutional, civic and community organisations, the senior officer added.
"Where at times mature, self-assured and quietly confident leadership is seemingly absent, we find ourselves standing in that gap," he said.
"The public expect much of their police service, and rightly so.
"But my challenge to society in Northern Ireland today is this, do we not have the right to expect much more from the communities we serve?"
The ministerial Executive based at Stormont has been considering a Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy.
Police in Northern Ireland face a busy few months with the G8 meeting of world leaders in June and the World Police and Fire Games in August.
Over the past year there were 61 shootings by dissident republicans and 36 bombings in which 43 devices were used. In March mortars were captured by police.
Mr Grimshaw added: "The interception of mortars signalled a worrying development as old methods made their way into a contemporary context.
"Less than two weeks later, North Belfast was the focus of a similar terrorist operation that harked back to the failed strategy of the darkest period in our country's recent past."
He expressed concern that dealing with the 30-year conflict's legacy was creating a relentless demand on diminishing resources and welcomed the decision to recommence police recruitment.