Belfast flag protestor to challenge conviction following ruling

Jamie Bryson.

Photograph: Declan Roughan

Jamie Bryson. Photograph: Declan Roughan

A prominent flag protestor handed a suspended prison sentence for taking part in unlawful processions in Belfast will attempt to have his conviction overturned following a ruling in the Supreme Court.

Jamie Bryson from Donaghadee was convicted in March 2015 of participating in un-notified public processions during January and February 2013, and obstructing traffic on the city’s Newtownards Road.

On Wednesday, five Supreme Court justices in London ruled unanimously in favour of an unnamed resident, announcing that the police did have the legal power to stop the parades but failed to do so.

Mass loyalist demonstrations, some of which descended into serious violence, were staged across Northern Ireland in opposition to Belfast City Council’s decision to limit the number of days the Union Flag flew over City Hall.

In April 2014, a judge at the High Court in Belfast ruled in favour of the resident of the nationalist Short Strand area of east Belfast, who claimed the police’s failure to stop unnotified loyalist marches past his home between December 2012 and February 2013 breached his right to privacy and family life.

Later that year, appeal judges overturned the ruling following a challenge by the PSNI. The resident then took his case to the Supreme Court.

Mr Bryson said the judgment supported his claim that the police had “facilitated” the protest processions – effectively making them legal.

He said: “I and many other people were walking down the middle of an arterial route, without our faces covered, happily advertising who we were, happily going on the media, it would be an absolute lunatic that would publicly and so brazenly break the law.

“So it’s quite clear that at that time the lay person was working on the understanding ... that this was not illegal. That is going to be the basis for me challenging [my conviction].”

Mr Bryson added: “I will have to try to lodge an appeal out of time and if that fails I could go to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and ask them to quash the conviction on the basis of this fresh evidence.”

Meanwhile, the Police Federation said “dangerously eroded” officer numbers had a bearing on the PSNI’s response to the flag protests.

Federation chairman Mark Lindsay said: “Given the fact that the PSNI was hundreds of officers short of the peacetime minimum, it would have been impossible to deal with widespread trouble if orders were given to prevent illegal parades.

“As it was, we had more than 100 officers injured in serious street disorder. A below-strength service would not have had sufficient resilience to robustly deal with un-notified parades.”

Mr Lindsay added: “Today is no different. In fact, we have fewer officers on the payroll now than we did in 2012. The interpretation of the law is one thing, but having sufficient numbers present to uphold the law is quite another matter.”

The NI Policing Board is due to meet on Thursday to ask the chief constable if there are “any operational impacts” as a result of the judgment.