Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: The Belfast Agreement was meant to 'depoliticise' the administration of justice... but what happened at the weekend showed political policing is alive and well

You may not agree with the bandsmen's support for 'Soldier F', but they're still entitled to express their point of view without being treated like criminals, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Saoradh protest in Derry against the Apprentice Boys
Saoradh protest in Derry against the Apprentice Boys
Bandsmen during the parade on Saturday
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

What crime are Apprentice Boys supposed to have committed in Londonderry at the weekend by wearing insignia in support of the Parachute Regiment?

It may have been insensitive to do so in a city where 28 unarmed civil rights protesters were gunned down by the Army in 1972, leaving 14 of them dead in an act that not only traumatised a community, but provided a bloody recruiting sergeant for the Provos for decades to come.

Of what actual offence were bandsmen guilty, though, that made it in any way acceptable for police to board their bus on the way home and caution three people for refusing to co-operate with a demand to hand over their names and addresses?

One doesn't need to be as incensed as Jamie Bryson - who, rather than calming tensions, chose to inflame them further by declaring that loyalists now see the PSNI as nationalists once viewed the RUC - to regard this development as deeply worrying.

The police insist that their actions, which included surrounding one band from Larne as they marched through Derry, were motivated solely by a fear that flaunting Parachute Regiment badges and flags so close to the scene of the original atrocity may have led to a breach of the peace.

Why, then, not arrest those either breaching the peace, or threatening to do so, since they're the ones who would be committing a serious criminal offence?

Instead, it was band members, whose only crime was a lack of human empathy, who had their bus later stopped by seven or eight Land Rovers, all just hours after police withdrew from the site of a contentious bonfire in Belfast's nationalist New Lodge out of fear that laying down the law too strongly would provoke a backlash.

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One of the mantras of the peace process was that policing needed to be depoliticised so that it could earn the trust of all sides.

Twenty years on it's hard to disagree that what happened at the weekend was political policing.

It's effectively demonising people for having the "wrong" opinions. It doesn't matter if those loyalists were hampering cross-community relations. They're still entitled to express a point of view without being treated like criminals.

There are banners and murals all over Northern Ireland celebrating loyalist and republican murderers. They're undoubtedly offensive to the victims of terrorism, too.

Is the PSNI going to move in and paint over them in case that also causes a breach of the peace? Are politicians who glorify past violence, such as Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson, going to get a knock on the door? Or is it only those who defend State forces who are in danger of having their collars felt?

Sadly, the PSNI is not alone in crossing the line in this way. Police forces across the UK are increasingly getting involved in matters which are none of their business.

One woman in London was arrested recently after being filmed shouting "shame on you" at a Pride march. Last month a Christian preacher received £2,500 for wrongful arrest after being placed in handcuffs and having his Bible confiscated when a passer-by accused him of "Islamophobia".

The threat of a breach of the peace was the feeble excuse used on that occasion as well.

As if all that wasn't bad enough, whole units of the police now seem to be dedicated to tracking down so-called "trolls", who say mean things on social media.

A Scottish comedian was even put on trial for posting a video in which he taught his girlfriend's dog to do a Nazi salute as a joke, while writer Graham Linehan, creator of Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted, received a visit from the boys in blue after getting embroiled in a Twitter row about a new law which would allow anyone born male to "self-identify" as a woman in order to get access to female-only safe spaces, such as changing rooms.

In 2016 it was reported that an average of nine people a day were being arrested in the UK for posting content online that was deemed offensive. That was more than 3,300 people in a single year. The figures will undoubtedly have gone up since.

One of the problems may be that young people have grown up with almost limitless free speech and have come to take that hard-won right for granted.

Years ago, when something offended you, you just had to wise up and get over it and it was much healthier, both personally and for society as a whole.

These days everyone dials 999 at the slightest provocation demanding that something must be done about it, and, rather than telling callers that they have better things to do with their time, such as catching real criminals, police are actually urging cry-babies to get in touch when their feelings are hurt.

South Yorkshire Police went so far as to issue the following appeal: "In addition to reporting hate crime, please report non-crime hate incidents, which can include things like offensive or insulting comments online."

If you're not alarmed that the police are actively encouraging members of the public to rat on one another for "non-crimes", then reading George Orwell's 1984 may be a good place to start.

Like Big Brother before them, the police are as good as saying there are such things as "thought crimes", and that the full weight of the law must be brought down to bear on them. This is what we've come to.

In April the head of the National Police Chiefs' Council took it a step further by warning politicians to mind their language when talking about Brexit so as not to "inflame people's views".

Since when was it the job of unelected police officers to tell elected politicians how they can speak about contentious issues?

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood says he's seeking a meeting with the Apprentice Boys so that he can impress upon them the "deep hurt and distress" that their public expression of support for the Paras caused to victims.

Many in Northern Ireland are, indeed, carrying hurt from the Troubles, but it simply isn't reasonable to suggest that everything which causes them distress be banned.

Nationalist politicians are not thinking this through. It's the Apprentice Boys today, but it will be someone on their own side tomorrow and, having refused to stand up for their opponents' right to express controversial points of view, they'll be in no position to complain when they're on the receiving end of the same censorship.

Go down this road and free speech is dead. A time will come eventually when we realise what we've lost.

By then it will be too late.

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