The police are “dancing to Sinn Fein’s tune” after it was revealed that further erection of flags in one south Belfast neighbourhood will be treated as a “breach of the peace”.
Thhe TUV and DUP were both critical of the police’s move, which followed a meeting with Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey, who had complained after what he called “an incident where police officers stood by and watched as flags were put up” in the Ballynafeigh part of the upper Ormeau Road.
Parts of the upper Ormeau are seen as largely Protestant while other parts are mixed, and a raft of flags presently fly from the area’s lamp-posts.
The other side of the bridge, lower Ormeau, is nationalist and sometimes sees the erection of tricolours.
Although Mr Maskey hailed the police’s decision, with the SDLP also calling for it to mimicked across the Province, others were angered by the apparent pending clampdown.
“In dancing to Sinn Fein’s tune over the erection of Union Flags, the PSNI is in danger of losing the run of itself and of creating serious alienation in loyalist communities,” said Jim Allister of the TUV.
“The police should have better and more pressing things to do in pursuing crime than in talking up Sinn Fein propaganda.”
A barrister, he added that “the offence of behaviour likely to lead to a breach of the peace” is based on a disorderly response to the activity in question.
Nigel Dodds, DUP MP for North Belfast, said that his own preference would be to see the Union Flag fly solely from City Hall, not in tattered rags from lamp-posts.
He said: “Unfortunately the removal of that one Union Flag at City Hall has resulted in a greater number of flags being erected,” adding that those behind that change apparently believe “flags should be a higher priority for the police than burglary, assaults or any of the other crimes”.
During the Haass talks, a suggestion to create “flag licences” had been ridiculed, and the issue still lacks agreement from politicians.
The police said its recent announcement came amid heightened tensions in the area, adding it would only actually remove flags “in extreme circumstances”.
It denied that the announcement represented any change in its policy and said its approach to flags was governed by a protocol drawn up with the Executive, due to be updated.
It added the current position can fuel “the perception of differing approaches in different areas, but this is the essence of local community resolutions in the absence of a wider consensus”, and that long-term resolution can only come “by political consensus”.