PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott has urged those engaging in violence associated with protests in support of the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall to seek to emulate the example set by the Queen.
Referring to the Queen’s historic visit to the Republic last year, during which she bowed her head at Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance and also spoke several words in Irish, Northern Ireland’s police chief said Her Majesty had set a good example.
“This year and last year, Her Majesty the Queen set us an example of tolerance, respect and forgiveness, standing alongside the president of Ireland,” he told the media during a joint press conference with Justice Minister David Ford at police headquarters yesterday morning.
Mr Baggott slammed the violence during a protest at Belfast City Hall on Monday night when flag protestors stormed the building, as well as attacks on police, the burning of an Alliance office in Carrickfergus, a paint bomb attack at the home of two Alliance councillors in Bangor and a threat against a Belfast Alliance councillor, as “outrageously irresponsible behaviour of people who are opposed to democracy”.
“Their actions are shameful, and they have put innocent people’s lives at risk, particularly at this busy time coming up to Christmas,” he said.
“It is an outrage to have democratic parties intimidated and burnt simply because they took a democratic decision. It is wrong. And I ask everyone to take a step back again and think carefully.”
Some 19 police officers have been injured during the violence, and Mr Baggott paid tribute to them and praised their courage.
Yesterday morning, Mr Baggott met with Alliance East Belfast MP Naomi Long and East Antrim MLA Stewart Dickson, whose office was burned on Wednesday evening.
He was scheduled to meet senior politicians, including First Minister Peter Robinson, later, whom he said he was going to ask to do everything possible to defuse the tension.
Mr Baggott has urged people to be careful what they say at this time.
“It’s a time where we have to be very careful about what we say. Careless words, exaggerated rhetoric, dogma will take us back rather than take us forward,” he said.
“The world is watching, and it will make its judgment on the events of the next few days.
“You can have my assurance that there will be a very strong policing presence over the next few days.”
The Chief Constable has also defended police response to the violence this week, particularly at the City Hall on Monday and in Carrickfergus on Wednesday night where police came under attack.
In Bangor on Wednesday night, police foiled an attempt to set fire to Alliance MLA Stephen Farry’s office.
“We did have a very strong police presence on Wednesday night. It dealt with the disorder very quickly,” he said.
“We are covering a very wide geographic area, but we stepped up our resources significantly last night.
“At City Hall, I think the approach we took was entirely correct. We wanted to facilitate people. We didn’t want to exacerbate the tension.
“Sadly a minority took advantage of that, but we do try to police proportionately and I stand behind the local commanders and their decisions.”
He added: “Town centres and city centres are not the places for mass protests, where they are full of mothers with their children, people shopping, businesses who are desperate to make money during this recession. I can’t emphasise enough the risks to people’s safety when you get large numbers of people congregating, with a small number, even if it is a small number, who are bent on violence.”
Mr Baggott has warned that social networking websites – from where much of the violence was organised – are being studied, and said that no breaches of the law were allowed.
Mr Ford said he wanted to thank police for their efforts and said his department stood firmly behind them.
“It is absolutely clear the democratic politicians have a duty to support the police as they work to uphold the rule of law, and I would urge the community to listen to the words the Chief Constable has said and pledge the support of the Department of Justice to the PSNI in carrying out their difficult duties at this time,” he said.
“I would urge people to ensure we don’t place more pressure on the police, that we allow the positive news that should be presented with the visit of Hillary Clinton tomorrow to be the news that goes out and not further continuing violence.”