Last summer’s marching season violence in Northern Ireland must not be repeated, Stormont’s justice minister David Ford warned.
Five-party talks intended to deal with contentious parades by members of loyal orders or republicans ended without consensus at the end of last year and only a short time remains before the start of widespread Orange Order demonstrations.
Last July 12, the height of the loyal orders marching season, was marred by serious rioting after the organisation which adjudicates on contentious marches barred Orangemen from walking past Ardoyne in North Belfast.
Mr Ford said: “With the polls behind us, there will be a short run in to 2014’s full parading season. None of us wants to see a repeat of the violence and disorder witnessed over what was, without doubt, a very difficult summer in 2013.”
The police were attacked with petrol bombs several nights in north Belfast last July after marchers were banned from a stretch of road separating loyalists and nationalists.
Stones, bottles and fireworks were also thrown at officers. Water cannons were deployed to hold back rioters.
Loyalists have mounted a constant presence at the sectarian interface dividing the two sides since last summer, requiring a security presence.
The justice minister added: “The nightly camp at Twaddell Avenue is an ongoing reminder of that, and continues to put a huge drain on police resources.
“Millions of pounds that could have been better spent, tackling the criminality that affects the daily lives of citizens in ways that - and let’s be honest about this - not being allowed to march on particular roads, at particular times, do not.”
He said he was bitterly disappointed at the failure of political talks hosted by former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass.
“It was a huge opportunity missed, due to lack of commitment, lack of ambition, and lack of political courage. We needed them to succeed in all three areas - the past, flags and parades.
“But whatever changes might have been agreed around the regulation of parades, or may yet be agreed, the fundamental issue will remain unchanged: citizens in a democracy, and their political representatives, must accept the outcome of processes put in place by democratic means.”
He told a Belfast conference of senior police officers if that meant a process that decides who can march or protest, when and under what conditions, than that must be accepted.
“It’s called the rule of law. It’s that simple. And living in a democracy means accepting democratically taken decisions, and the outworking of those decisions, and the lawful enforcement of that outworking by the police, where necessary.”
Terry Spence, chairman of the Police Federation which represents rank and file officers, is calling for an extra 1,000 new recruits.
He said the force was in danger of dropping to around 5,500 officers and warned protesters who have set up camp near Ardoyne could exploit insufficient numbers.
After Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams’ arrest by detectives investigating the murder of Belfast mother Jean McConville, Stormont Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness strongly criticised what he branded a “dark side” of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). He claimed an old guard was opposed to the peace process.
Chief Superintendent Nigel Grimshaw, president of the Police Superintendents Association of Northern Ireland, said reforms were supposed to remove the politics from policing.
He added: “It does concern me when support for policing seems to depend on their investigative strategies or the perspectives of the adversarial political arena.
“Sadly, we still find ourselves being used for attack and counter-attack in political rhetoric and although the intent and posturing of those concerned will seem obvious to many, it is nonetheless wearying and potentially debilitating over time.”
He said policing was a human endeavour and added he worked alongside officers who cared about the community and wanted to make a difference.
“Worryingly, there remains a mindset on the part of some which seems to regard good policing as only that which tackles the ‘other’ side and bad policing is that which seeks to deal with ‘our’ side.
“Our duty to the public and to the legal system is clear - it’s to follow the evidence, regardless of where that evidence leads.”