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Policing strategy under the spotlight

With the street fallout from the Belfast City Hall flag row now well into its second month, the PSNI is feeling the heat of a burning spotlight on tactics and operational command.

On Friday night, some of those who came out to protest as part of the so-called ‘Operation Standstill’ blocked the road at Sandy Row.

The area is where UDA leader Jackie McDonald has paramilitary command, and he told this newspaper he understands the policing dilemma.

“If there is a peaceful protest, police have to be very careful and diplomatic in getting people off the road.

“If they are being attacked, they should arrest people,” he said.

McDonald then used the words “community impact”. What he means is the wrong policing move could make things so much worse.

On allegations from loyalists that police have been heavy-handed, Chief Constable Matt Baggott said: “I’ve heard the word brutal being used” — a word he described as “emotive”.

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“I won’t stand over or justify any use of excessive force,” Mr Baggott told this newspaper. “But we have to be clear. When you have extreme violence being directed at police, with potential ballistic threat… we are quite entitled to use firm assertive force to deal with that and that’s exactly what we will be doing.”

He knows there are many watching and arguing that the policing operation has been far too measured. But what if the wrong move lights the fire elsewhere?

A police service already stretched could be stretched even further. So, the approach we are watching is one of containment as politicians and community leaders look for an answer.

The first challenge is to get the protests off the streets.

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