WHEN protestors blocked roads early in December, for the most part, the PSNI stood idly by and facilitated the protests. In fact, the word ‘facilitated’ was used by prominent politicians who witnessed the law-breaking taking place. In addition, a former chairman of the Northern Ireland Parades Commission, Sir Alistair Graham, also referred to the police as having ‘facilitated’ the protestors, and he stated that the effect of the police’s inaction in neglecting their duty was ‘to undermine the law’. However, the duty of the police is not to undermine the law but to uphold it.
Blocking the roadway is against the law. The police are paid to enforce the law. So the instruction to police officers to baby-sit and indulge the protestors, by turning a blind eye to lawbreaking, was the fault of the chief constable’s flawed policy. An equally grievous error has been to allow illegal marches on Saturdays every week for more than 10 weeks, when protestors have been allowed to march from east Belfast and disrupt legitimate traffic, to enable the protestors to demonstrate in front of Belfast City Hall. Yet again, the failure of policing policy has been to permit these illegal marches to take place, thereby undermining the law even further.
Another omission in the chief constable’s policy was to wait for seven weeks from the start of the illegal protests before calling upon advice from the London Metropolitan Police.
English police forces dealt firmly with riots in August 2011, when thousands of arrests were made and penalties were increased nearly fourfold. Those riots were nipped in the bud.
Matt Baggott should have acted promptly, purposefully and positively to have prevented the escalation of violence which inevitably followed his ‘softly, softly’ approach. Another tactical error was the Keystone Cops-style of blocking one bridge over the Lagan on January 12, when the protestors simply chose to use another.
Overall, the tactics have resulted in more than £15 million in policing costs, about 150 PSNI officers injured, and £30 million in economic loss. All this damage could have been avoided.
The Northern Ireland Policing Board appointment of the chief constable was ratified by the secretary of state, but it is the Policing Board that has the statutory authority for ‘holding the chief constable to account for the effectiveness and efficiency of the PSNI’. Mr Baggott should be replaced by someone else who has a greater grasp of appropriate tactics to uphold the law and to maintain order, so as ‘to make Northern Ireland safer for everyone’ in accordance with the Framework Document for Governance of the PSNI.
Neil C Oliver, LL B