An already stretched police force cannot sustain another summer of widespread loyalist protests and outbreaks of street violence, the justice minister has warned.
With the PSNI currently under huge financial pressure as a result of budget cuts, David Ford said ongoing protests and the potential for trouble could have a devastating impact on the service.
He said they would severely hamper the ability to fight dissident republican terrorism and could lead to an increase in street-level crime.
Speaking ahead of this weekend's Twelfth, Mr Ford told the Belfast Telegraph it was imperative protesters keep off the streets in the coming weeks to avoid violent clashes.
"The justice system in the sense of the prosecution service, the courts and the prison system has coped with the numbers there," he said.
"Undoubtedly the area which has had most difficulty is the police service which has been placed under enormous pressure at the same time as they face a severe terror threat.
"We've been spending near enough £1m a month since then just policing the top end of Twaddell Avenue. That is unsustainable, putting huge pressure on policing and diverting them from normal community policing and fighting other significant crime.
"There have been a very significant number of arrests in recent months on serious terrorist crime, at the same time the police have maintained good neighbourhood policing.
"That isn't going to be sustainable if we have budget cuts and continuing street disorder."
More than £10m has been spent on policing the Twaddell protest camp, set up in response to the banning of an Orange Order parade along Belfast's Crumlin Road last Twelfth – a Parades Commission decision repeated last Thursday.
Mr Ford said that over the past 18 months around 700 people had been through the courts in relation to street protests on flags and parades. More than 90% were convicted. Hundreds of officers caught up in the violence were injured. The minister said in the coming weeks that was "best averted by people staying off the streets completely".
Mr Ford said unionist leaders must learn lessons from last year when, despite appeals for calm, flag protests – many backed by political representatives – and fury over the blocking of the Twelfth parade in north Belfast, quickly escalated into serious rioting.
"Once people come onto the streets there is almost an inevitability, it doesn't have to be inevitable, but experience shows that is most likely," he said.
"That's why people must stay off the streets, stay away from contentious areas and ensure any protests are completely peaceful by the small numbers of people involved and not by large crowds."
Yesterday North Belfast DUP MP Nigel Dodds said threats of violence must be faced down at all levels of society. Speaking during Prime Ministers Questions in the House of Commons he said "the unionist leadership have been forthright in calling for only peaceful and lawful protests".
Story so far
Last week, new Chief Constable George Hamilton admitted huge financial challenges lie ahead for the PSNI. He told the Policing Board that the 2014/15 budget already reflected £47.6m in cuts as part of the £135m Comprehensive Spending Review reduction. But he added that the 2014/15 budget had recently been reduced by a further £15m, and another possible reduction of £10m was "currently under discussion". "I should remind all that each £5m reduction in budget equates to approximately 100 operational police officers per year," he added.