Police in Northern Ireland have welcomed a Court of Appeal decision to overturn a judgment that had found they had wrongly facilitated illegal loyalist protests.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) argued that the original court ruling regarding its handling of Union flag protests 18 months ago would have placed major constraints on how it polices future parades and demonstrations in the region.
Earlier this year a High Court judge upheld a legal challenge from a resident of the nationalist Short Strand area of east Belfast who had 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.
Mass loyalist demonstrations, some of which descended into serious violence, were staged across Northern Ireland in that time period in opposition to Belfast City Council’s decision to limit the number of days the Union flag flew over City Hall.
As permission for the loyalist marches was not sought from the Parades Commission adjudication body, the events were not lawful.
In finding in favour of the unnamed Short Strand resident in April, Justice Treacy found that police had not properly understood their powers to intervene in the protests.
But three Appeal Court judges, among them Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, came to a different conclusion and today allowed the PSNI’s appeal against the judgment.
They said commanders’ decisions to contain the protests and pursue arrests and charges at a later date fell within their discretionary powers.
The matter may not end there however as lawyers for the resident are set to seek permission to have the case heard in the Supreme Court.
Newly appointed chief constable George Hamilton said he welcomed the “clarity” from the Court of Appeal in Belfast.
“The protracted period of the flags protests, and associated disorder, was a challenging time for everyone in Northern Ireland and there are lessons from that period for a range of bodies including policing,” he said.
“However, the PSNI was concerned that elements of the original High Court judgment may have impacted on our ability to police parades and protest activity in a way which is fully compliant with the Human Rights Act and Policing with the Community philosophy.
“We appealed the judgment accordingly and welcome that clarity from the Court of Appeal this morning.”
Turning to this year’s marching season, which has been peaceful to date, Mr Hamilton added: “I would encourage both communities to continue to show the dignity and respect evident at recent parades and protests so that the remainder of this year’s parading season passes off as peacefully as it has to date.”