Private talks between police and community leaders this weekend will cost an estimated £26,000, the PSNI have revealed.
Six senior police officers and 28 others, including unelected community representatives from flashpoint areas of north and east Belfast are being flown to a four-star hotel in Cardiff for two days of intensive dialogue aimed at re-building fractured relationships with the PSNI.
“We spend millions of pounds every year policing disorder. That is just the policing cost -- it’s not the cost of adverse impacts in terms of investment or tourism.
“So, it makes sense to go for this engagement to try to minimise the risk and to provide a greater understanding of the policing position within communities. And, so the police can have a greater understanding of the communities perspectives,” said Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton, who will be heading up the PSNI delegation.
The Cardiff initiative is being facilitated by academics from the University of Ulster and the Stanford University in the US.
Costs will be split between the PSNI and Northern Ireland Office although there will be no NIO representation at the event.
It follows serious trouble in Belfast over Christmas and the New Year after Belfast City Council’s decision to restrict the flying of the Union flags to designated days.
Security chiefs are also increasingly worried about the prospect of further civil unrest linked to disputed parades close to loyalist and nationalist interface areas.
To date, the policing bill for Operation Dulcet, which was launched in the wake of the Union flag dispute, has reached £23 million and rioting over the Twelfth of July last year cost the PSNI about £11 million.
Police tactics during public disorder and house searches, their response to Union flags protests and the policing of parades will top the agenda in Cardiff. However officers have insisted the meetings are not intended to resolve big ticket issues like flags and parades.
“In some areas, particularly working class loyalist and republican areas, there is a big job of work to do to gain the confidence of those communities. Not just on policing but also confidence within the communities but confidence in the whole system and how well the system is serving the needs.
“What it is not about is negotiation on any specific parade or even the parading issue. It is not about trying to find a new way of arbitrating parades. This is about the police response to all of that rather than the issues themselves,” said Mr Hamilton.
He also denied that police were pandering to dissatisfied loyalist and republicans in communities where street violence can be turned on and off.
“We are not going into these conversations just in receive mode - we are going to be listening of course - but some of it is actually going to be explaining to people that there are consequences when people break the law.
“We are not going with any sort of heavy-handed message but we are not going to the discussions to be dictated to,” added Mr Hamilton.
Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr and Chief Superintendent Mark Hamilton will be in Wales joined by Chief Superintendents Alan McCrum, George Clarke and Mark McCune the PSNI commanders for Belfast.
Invitations were also sent to representatives from all the main political parties.
The Orange Order has not been officially included in the get-together although veteran Belfast-based Orangeman Reverend Mervyn Gibson has been sent a personal invite.
The hardline Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective (GARC) who were blamed for orchestrating rioting in Ardoyne last year are not attending.
Police said no one had declined their invitation.
Mr Hamilton refuted claims that the PSNI’s community relations were in crisis.
“Crime is at the lowest level it has been for a decade in Northern Ireland, confidence in policing is higher than it has ever been if you look right across the piece. But we are not complacent or arrogant about that. What we are saying is that there are very specific problems in very specific areas and we want to do our best to improve that through having conversations.
“This is not doom and gloom for policing,” he said.
Last week questions were raised by First Minister Peter Robinson about the need to travel to Cardiff for the private talks.
The PSNI said they hoped to obtain a neutral space where time was not an issue.
“We are not trying to shape politics, we are not trying to get the big fixes around parades and flags. It is really important that we understand the feelings of people in communities. That is largely what this weekend is about.
“Our judgment along with the facilitators was to get away from this place to a more neutral venue with less distractions to give people the space and time to have private conversations and forthright conversations,” said Mr Hamilton.