Northern Ireland’s most senior policeman has called for a review of the law on unnotified public parades over concerns it is not deterring illegal Union flag demonstrations.
Matt Baggott’s warning followed loyalist marches against Belfast City Council’s vote restricting the flying of the emblem at City Hall.
Most protests passed off without incident but sustained rioting erupted at some.
Mr Baggott said: “I remain concerned that the current Public Processions Act does not provide sufficient deterrence to those breaking the law. The required standard of proof to convict is high and the Act would benefit from review.”
Loyalists have staged street demonstrations since the council’s vote on December 3.
Police have made 201 arrests and charged 149 people. A total of 146 officers were injured and water cannons and baton rounds fired in response to missiles like bricks and petrol bombs.
A regular Saturday loyalist parade deteriorated into sectarian rioting involving loyalists and nationalists near Short Strand in east Belfast earlier this year. Leaders of the processions did not apply for permission, the Parades Commission said.
The loyal orders’ marching season, historically a focal point for violence at a small number of parades, begins soon.
Mr Baggott said: “A disrupted marching season is not inevitable, nor is the violence which we have seen on our streets over recent months, and I hope that parades will take place safely and with respect for all cultures and backgrounds.”
The Parades Commission rules on where marches can be held and has been widely criticised by members of the loyal orders for rerouting some away from sectarian flashpoints. The commission has said it has no role to play in most flag protests because most demonstrations were not parades.
Chairman Peter Osborne said: “It is an offence to organise or participate in a parade that has not been notified through the appropriate form to the police.
“In upholding the law, the police have a number of options open to them including stopping the parade and gathering evidence for potential prosecution.”
Mr Osborne said it was not inevitable that predictions of a turbulent summer marching season due to the flags protests would be realised, calling on community leaders to help ensure peace.
“This summer we want people to make different choices, a choice of engagement, a choice of respect for others, a choice of law and order,” he said.
The marching season reaches it peak on July 12 when thousands of loyal order members parade through towns and cities to mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne.
They celebrate the victory of William III over the Catholic James II in July 1690.