Men in uniform don't take direction from men in suits
The main parties have no issue with political policing – until it is directed against their supporters, says Malachi O'Doherty
When Sean Hughes appeared at the High Court earlier this month, charged with, among other things, IRA membership, he had a former minister Conor Murphy in the public gallery for moral support.
No harm in that. If Mr Murphy, who was in the IRA himself, wants to stand by a neighbour, that's his business. But he came out of court to accuse the police of being politically motivated in bringing the charges.
Then TUV MLA Jim Allister tweeted a statement drawing a contrast between Willie Frazer failing to get bail (although he was briefly freed by the High Court last week) and Hughes walking out of court.
Peter Robinson then grabbed the baton, confronting the chief constable. That turned the question of whether the police are political into the biggest row of the week.
Matt Baggott should have factored in the prospect of the TUV and DUP competing not to deflate the protesters, but to absorb them. But what is Sinn Fein up to?
When Sean Kelly, the Shankill bomber, was questioned by police investigating a shooting in north Belfast, leading members of Sinn Fein rallied to argue for his release. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said it was "frankly ridiculous" to suggest Kelly would jeopardise the peace process.
Did Mr McGuinness know who had fired the shots? Did he have an alibi for Sean Kelly? Apparently, on the basis of a political analysis of Kelly's motivations, he was ready to scoff at the efforts of the police to solve a crime by questioning a suspect. The flag protesters routinely complain that the IRA is directing the PSNI. On McGuinness's form, republicans are at least making an effort in that direction.
Kelly was released and loyalists have their prejudices endorsed. Does Martin McGuinness believe that his intervention expedited that release?
If he does, loyalists do have something to worry about. If he doesn't, then he wasted his breath and put his own reputation in jeopardy for nothing.
Last November, police arrested leading republican Padraig Wilson. They charged him with conducting an illegal investigation on behalf of the IRA into the murder of Robert McCartney – a charge similar to that faced by Sean Hughes.
The McCartney case was particularly horrific. The killing was more reminiscent of the actions of the Shankill Butchers than of your standard Provo doorstep assassin, or under-car bomber.
The case had been hampered by republicans who were at the scene, but who all happened to be in the loo when some of their gang were running amok.
Indeed, Alex Maskey told the media he thought the killing was indicative of a rise in knife-crime; it apparently didn't cross his mind the IRA might have had a part in it.
Gerry Kelly, a former junior minister, called for Wilson's immediate release and accused the police of being "politically motivated".
He said: "...someone who was crucial to bringing people along in the peace process and political process is now behind bars, where he should not be".
This is not the sort of language that abjures the principle of political interference in policing; it's precisely the opposite. Gerry Kelly seems to think that, if you have been a peace-processor, you should have a waiver on (alleged) criminal activity. Imagine how that reads in Dee Street.
If flags protesters want to make the case that they are being discriminated against, because they are anti-Agreement, then they have only to cite Gerry Kelly, Conor Murphy and Martin McGuinness and point to the convenient – and, of course, entirely unrelated – fact that Padraig Wilson was also released on bail.
The picketing of the court by several leading members of Sinn Fein will have had no bearing on the judge's decision. But they wanted it to; they wanted to pressure the court, as Martin McGuinness wanted to pressure the police. And that isn't on. It betrays a lack of concern for balanced, fair and unpolitical policing.
Our main parties are not bothered about policing being political, only about it being directed against those they regard as their own.