PSNI stands by its handling of Apprentice Boys Parade despite unionist anger
A senior PSNI officer has been accused of "throwing the book" at loyalists while "turning a blind eye" to controversial republican parades.
Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd yesterday denied his officers had deployed "heavy-handed" tactics in dealing with Clyde Valley Flute Band during the Apprentice Boys Parade in Londonderry last Saturday.
Band members wore shirts bearing the Parachute Regiment insignia along with the letter 'F' during the parade, in support for the veteran paratrooper known as 'Soldier F', who is facing prosecution on murder charges over Bloody Sunday.
Last night the band - also known as The Gun Runners, after the Larne gun smuggling operation that used the SS Clyde Valley to equip the Ulster Volunteer Force - said it was considering making a complaint to the Police Ombudsman in relation to what it claimed was the "unlawful detention" of a number of its members.
In a statement issued through its solicitors, the band also insisted the same shirts had been worn on "many previous occasions without incident or controversy".
During the parade the band was escorted by a large number of PSNI officers as it made its way through the city. Later, a bus carrying the band home to Larne was stopped by officers on the outskirts of Derry, prompting a stand-off which ensued until officers secured details of a number of band members.
Police have now sent a file to the Public Prosecution Service, which will assess whether band members will face charges of provocative conduct.
Speaking at PSNI headquarters in Belfast, as a lone protester outside held a flag in support of the Parachute Regiment, Mr Todd insisted his operation was "proportionate, responsible and constructive".
He said the actions of his officers were for the "legitimate purpose of keeping the peace and keeping people safe". He continued: "Anybody in Northern Ireland, including those of us who have responsibility for policing it, understand there are places where space, history and symbols are contentious.
"That was the situation clearly that we found ourselves in on Saturday in Derry/Londonderry. People understand the contentious nature of symbols and history in that area."
Independent unionist councillor Paul Berry, who marched in Saturday's parade, insisted the emblem was not contentious, and the senior officer's comments were an attempt to "distract" from the PSNI's "mishandling" of the operation.
"(The explanation) is only a smokescreen for their failure and total overreacting on Saturday to which they should be ashamed of," he said. "This was a small, legal emblem and the police actually drew attention to it, and no one else. And the question I ask is: why?"
TUV leader Jim Allister accused Mr Todd of not applying the same approach across the board.
"He deems support for our lawful Armed Forces 'provocative', but presides over 'no-go' policing when republicans parade in Londonderry wearing masks," he said.
"Why is it that the PSNI is so ready to turn a blind eye to paramilitary displays at republican parades, but so exercised to throw the book at the soft target of a band from Larne?"
He also queried why there was "no evidence" of a PSNI presence at the recent hunger strike commemoration in Strabane, which sparked a row after Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson ended a speech with the IRA slogan "Tiocfaidh ar la".
Meanwhile, Mr Todd said that while the vast majority of those who took part in Saturday's parade did so within the law, respectfully and with due regard to the sensitivities, "one band in our view chose not to have a sensitivity towards that context, to the point where we believed that it would have interfered with our legitimate purpose of keeping the peace and keeping people safe".
He added: "We considered that to be an act of provocation under the Public Order Northern Ireland Order in line with provocative conduct intended or likely to lead to a breach of the peace."
DUP MP Gregory Campbell said the PSNI's actions have resulted in anger within the loyalist community, given it had occurred just days after the PSNI withdrew from north Belfast amid violence in the New Lodge at an anti-internment bonfire.
Mr Campbell, who will be meeting senior police officers today, said the PSNI had opted to withdraw from the New Lodge even though there was "obvious law-breaking in evidence".
"Public confidence in the police must not be undermined. The rationale for policing operations must be justifiable and even handed. Regarding (Saturday's) incident it did not seem to be the case. The DUP will continue to press for answers".
Meanwhile, the band did not disclose in its statement if it was party to a prior agreement that parade participants would not display any support for Soldier F. But it insisted it was its view that "no offence has been committed" by the band or by any of its members. "Notwithstanding... (we) will co-operate with the police in relation to this matter," it added.
Former Assistant Chief Constable Alan McQuillan said it had been "a textbook policing operation" in Derry.
"I believe the PSNI handled the situation extremely well. As usual, they have been left to pick up the pieces and stop a situation developing between the two communities," he said.
"While wearing the Parachute Regiment insignia on the streets of Derry may not be strictly illegal, it was hardly a sensible action. It was likely to lead to a breach of the peace because of where the parade was taking place. The same would apply if republicans decided to march down the Woodvale Road commemorating an IRA man.
"The PSNI dealt with it perfectly, flanking the band as it marched through the city and then stopping their bus on the journey home to get names and addresses. I took exactly the same action myself regarding the same Apprentice Boys parade in Derry 20 years ago.
"An outbreak of violence at the march on Saturday would have put the parade's entire future in jeopardy. People need to show some common sense. We all live here, we must respect each other."
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said he would be questioning senior officers about stopping the band's bus home.
But he added: "It is time to de-escalate tensions. There must be dialogue and consensus as we move forward. We need the Apprentice Boys, bands, residents, and politicians to get around the table.
"We don't want to squander the very real gains that have been made regarding this parade in the past."