Plastic bullets should have been used earlier in flag riots - Police Federation chief

Police in riot gear in Belfast earlier this year during flag protests and riots
Police in riot gear in Belfast earlier this year during flag protests and riots

A policing union boss has criticised PSNI tactics used to deal with violent loyalist street protests.

Terry Spence, chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, said police officers should not be used as cannon fodder and claimed the early use of plastic bullets could have prevented them being pelted by potentially lethal missiles during intense rioting.

“There has been a tactical failure in how we first handled these public order confrontations.

“Much of our initial difficulty and injuries can be attributed to us slavishly following the Association of Chief Police Officers’ guidelines on tactics to be deployed in the use of baton rounds in public order confrontations.

“To put it bluntly, we were policing public order in Northern Ireland according to guidelines more appropriate for the rest of the United Kingdom,” he said.

Since July last year, 448 PSNI officers have been injured as a result of public order - 136 were hurt during disorder that flared since December following Belfast City Council’s decision to limit the number of days it flies the Union flag.

Mr Spence, whose organisation represents 7,000 police officers up to the rank of chief inspector, said those on the front line during the flag disputes were battered with iron bars, axes and concrete slabs, which left them with broken bones, dislocated shoulders and severe bruising.

Tough action should be taken to tackle troublemakers, he claimed.

“What is needed to subdue or prevent public confrontation is the early and rapid deployment of AEP baton rounds. The sight of AEPs tends to concentrate the minds of potential rioters.

“Their early use keeps rioters at sufficient distance to prevent an array of sometimes deadly missiles bombarding officers from every direction,” said Mr Spence.

Last month the PSNI took political, community and church leaders to Cardiff to discuss their response to flag protests and parades in an effort to ease community tensions ahead of the contentious marching season.

But Mr Spence warned that rank and file PSNI officers did not look to the summer with optimism.

“Like everyone else, we are hopeful that Cardiff does lead to a better understanding of policing among the participants but signing up to a joint statement is one thing. Seeing effective community leadership on the ground when possible conflict arises over the coming months will be another,” he said.

There have been 16 gun attacks and 33 bombing incidents in Northern Ireland since January.

Most recently, two police officers escaped injury when improvised grenade-type devices were thrown at their patrol in north Belfast last week.

A fortnight ago, three officers were lured into another gun and bomb attack while responding to a hoax 999 call in the west of the city.

Mr Spence raised concerns about the growing capabilities of dissident republican terror groups intent on murder.

“We have major concerns about the coming together of these disparate groups, together with their increasing sophistication and utter disregard for the risk of incidental casualties,” he said.

To date, 157 suspected terrorists have been arrested with 50 brought before the courts.

Mr Spence said the PSNI needed to immediately recruit at least 1,000 additional officers to cope with the terror threat. He claimed up to 1,200 police men and women were eligible to leave the force over the next two years.

“The creeping resumption of the so-called armed struggle shows signs of increasing in intensity rather than diminishing and cannot be left solely for the police to deal with.

“The response to violence has to come from our politicians in their total and unequivocal condemnation; from the courts in a robust determination to punish severely and from a police service adequately resourced in numbers, equipment, vehicles and technology,” he added.

Meanwhile, support for proposals by the Home Secretary for a conviction for the murder of a police officer to result in a whole-life jail sentence was repeated during the chairman’s speech.

“Members of the judiciary should also be included within the scope of the legislation. There is no other place in the United Kingdom where public servants are routinely targeted for murder as custodians of the law. This is a change in the law which could bring some sobering focus to young terrorists,” said Mr Spence.

The Police Federation chairman slammed the situation where some PSNI officers forced to flee their homes had been left out of pocket because of the property market crash.

Mr Spence said the Department of Justice and the PSNI had a duty to step up to the mark and meet equity shortfall.

“We find it deplorable that after nearly five years, some police officers still find themselves in this straitened financial position through inexcusable intransigence by the relevant authorities,” said Mr Spence.

There were also calls for police officers, whose pay has been frozen for the last two years, to be given a pay rise in recognition of the severe terrorist threat they face on a daily basis.