The cost of policing a long-standing protest at a north Belfast community interface is approaching £7 million, latest figures have indicated.
Violence flared in the unionist Woodvale area last summer when Orangemen were banned from parading past the adjacent nationalist Ardoyne on their way home from traditional Twelfth of July commemorations.
Rioting broke out on a number of subsequent days and loyalist demonstrators have maintained a continuous presence at a protest camp at the Woodvale/Ardoyne interface at Twaddell Avenue ever since.
The dispute has necessitated a major ongoing police presence.
Justice Minister David Ford has revealed the cost of policing the Twaddell protest had reached £5.45 million by the end of December.
With police now estimating the daily cost of the operation at £40,696, the total bill is now thought to be in the region of £6.8 million.
Mr Ford outlined cost implications in response to a written Assembly questioned tabled by NI21 leader Basil McCrea.
As well as providing an update on the Twaddell protest, the minister confirmed the total cost of policing last year’s loyalist Union flag protests was almost £22 million.
Those demonstrations, which pre-dated the summer unrest in north Belfast, were triggered when Belfast City Council voted in December 2012 to limit the flying of the flag on top of City Hall. A number of the protests descended into serious violence.
Police made public the financial implications of the flag protests last year, but Mr Ford today confirmed the PSNI bill from 3 December 2012 to 31 March 2013 was £21.9m.
Mr Ford said around £250,000 had also so far been paid in criminal damage compensation linked to the flag protests, with that sum set to increase as more claims were resolved.
Referring to the cost of policing both the flag protests and the Twaddell situation, the minister stated:
“The flag protests and civil unrest have placed, and continue to place, a financial, and indeed a more general, burden or cost on many different sectors.”
Mr Ford added: “These costs impact significantly on the PSNI’s ability to undertake other work on behalf of the community.”
The minister said processing those arrested in the various disputes through the justice system also had an impact on the public purse.
“Given that nearly 400 people have been charged in connection with the protests and associated disorder the cost will be significant,” he said.
Mr Ford added: “There are also wider costs to local businesses, especially in Belfast, where uncertainty around protests have impacted heavily, particularly in the run up to Christmas 2012. Images of the flags protests and associated disorder were seen across the United Kingdom and Ireland and further afield.
“The reputational damage that such scenes can cause, the related impact to the economy should not be underestimated.
“But the greatest cost of all is arguably to our community. As I have said before, everyone has the right to protest peacefully but there can be no excuse for the scenes of violence we have witnessed. The vast majority of the community are committed to democracy and the rule of law and it is essential that we continue to work together to tackle underlying issues and build a truly shared society for all.”
Mr McCrea described the costs as “truly staggering”.
“As the Justice Minister has stated, they are having a significant impact on the PSNI’s ability to undertake other work on behalf of the community,” he said.
“The PSNI is being seriously hampered in its ability to tackle crime and protect the community across Northern Ireland. This is a serious issue which I believe political leaders in Northern Ireland need to get a grip of.
“At a time when our hospitals, schools and public services are under serious pressure, the public will find it difficult to understand such spending.”
Mr McCrea blamed unionist politicians for whipping up and sustaining tensions within loyalism and urged them to reflect seriously on the cost to the public purse.