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PSNI 'got tactics spot on to nip the potential for disorder in the bud'

It was a day when the PSNI showed its teeth — not to bite, but just to prove it still had them.

On Saturday we witnessed a policing show of strength as the City Hall flag rally marched its way out of Belfast back towards the east of the city.

And with every step the protesters took, the police followed their footsteps.

It was clear there would be no repeat of what happened the week before when the crowd split and headed for that flashpoint at the front of the nationalist Short Strand.

This time, strategically and tactically, the police got it right.

It looked ugly, but the place felt safer.

And, seven weeks into this street play, Belfast still hasn’t lost its sense of humour.

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Close to the City Hall I asked a shop worker about passing trade, to be told the police had been in to do their Lotto.

“They’re looking a way out,” the woman quipped.

Guiding this march in and out of the city comes at a huge cost; money that could be better spent on so many other things.

And, after the fiasco of the previous Saturday, this time the police delivered a no-nonsense message.

It was belt-and-braces as officers on foot and in vehicles emerged at every twist and turn of this journey.

Their operation involved something in the region of 120-150 Land Rovers, dog teams, four water cannon, and a dinghy in the Lagan below the Queen’s Bridge... just in case.

The crowd went by Middlepath Street, bypassing a chunk of the Short Strand, and everyone could breathe again when it passed St Matthew’s Catholic church.

These protests will not put the flag back on the City Hall and at some point the Parades Commission may have to intervene.

If this protest walks like a march and looks like a march, then it is a march, and Belfast can’t afford it, and nor can the police.

On Friday and Saturday, in Belfast and elsewhere, officers moved in to clear a number of roads that were being blocked by protesters.

This represented a step-change in the policing approach, but for how long, and at what cost, can that type of big-numbers operation be maintained?

As we watched on Saturday, police money was melting with the Belfast snow.

That things stayed quiet was not just down to that policing operation. There were other factors, including the statement last Thursday pleading for an end to the violence, which was endorsed by the UVF.

Peter Sheridan, who is now Chief Executive of Co-operation Ireland, tweeted: “Seems the violence around the protests can be switched on and off — suggests it was organised rather than spontaneous.”

There are many agendas at play in this street theatre.

And what is clear is that Belfast can’t afford this particular production.

It needs a political plan, a thinker and a leader — someone who doesn’t feel the need to play to the crowd.

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