Police relieved as July 12 proves to be one of the most peaceful for years

ACC Stephen Martin of the PSNI in the services Gold Control room in Belfast, who has described the major security operation around the traditional Twelfth of July loyal order parades in Northern Ireland as the most successful in years
ACC Stephen Martin of the PSNI in the services Gold Control room in Belfast, who has described the major security operation around the traditional Twelfth of July loyal order parades in Northern Ireland as the most successful in years

It has been hailed as one of the most peaceful Twelfths in years and there was a palpable sense of relief behind the scenes at police headquarters in Belfast.

For the commander in charge of the massive operation - more than 3,000 officers across 11 districts monitoring over 600 parades - the annual Orange Order demonstration is among the busiest and most challenging events on his calendar.

Constable Paul Green speaks with Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin (right) of the PSNI in the services Gold Control room in Belfast, who has described the major security operation around the traditional Twelfth of July loyal order parades in Northern Ireland as the most successful in years

Constable Paul Green speaks with Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin (right) of the PSNI in the services Gold Control room in Belfast, who has described the major security operation around the traditional Twelfth of July loyal order parades in Northern Ireland as the most successful in years

It throws up many of the problems that lie at the very root of Northern Ireland’s divided society.

Months of meticulous planning went into ensuring the day passed off without major incident.

While the general consensus was of less tension this year, particularly from within loyalism, contingencies were in place to deal with any trouble which might flare at the handful of remaining sectarian flashpoints.

Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin said: “We had planned for a variety of scenarios. From everything going as well as we could hope, to different levels of deterioration.

Supporters cheer as members of the Orange Order pass on Crumlin Road, Belfast, as part of the annual Twelfth of July parades across Northern Ireland

Supporters cheer as members of the Orange Order pass on Crumlin Road, Belfast, as part of the annual Twelfth of July parades across Northern Ireland

“And we had all tactical options available to us - air support, specialist firearms teams, public order teams, dog teams, water canon and AEP (baton round) systems.

“But we were also mindful that it was important to try and make things as normal as possible.”

It is the second consecutive year that ACC Martin has been Police Service of Northern Ireland’s “gold commander” for the policing of parades and bonfires.

Last year 24 police officers were injured as they bore the brunt of loyalist anger at being blocked from parading on a contested stretch of Crumlin Road in north Belfast.

Orangemen march down the Crumlin Road in Belfast during one of the annual Twelfth of July parades across Northern Ireland

Orangemen march down the Crumlin Road in Belfast during one of the annual Twelfth of July parades across Northern Ireland

Bricks, bottles, fireworks and metal bolts were among the missiles thrown at police lines and one senior officer had an ear almost severed by a piece of flying masonry.

In previous years, when Orangemen have been allowed to march past the nationalist Ardoyne area, republicans have rioted, throwing petrol and occasionally blast bombs.

Some 1,500 police vehicles were deployed including 400 heavily armoured Land Rovers and 100 motorcycles backed up by the PSNI’s air support units on Tuesday.

For ACC Martin it was all about achieving a balance.

“Policing can make things better but it can also make things worse if policing is mishandled,” he added.

“Often the “what” of policing - the effect you want to achieve - is quite clear but how you go about it is really important.

“And, the “how” is where I spend a lot of my time. Thinking about image, style, tone, feel and ‘if I do it this way what reaction will it create?’”

Like many of the rank and file, his mammoth shift started at the crack of dawn and followed a late night with just a few hours of interrupted sleep.

His office at the “gold” strategic command centre, a dedicated hub within the PSNI’s sprawling Brooklyn complex, was a hive of activity.

Representatives from the Ministry of Defence, Northern Ireland Office, Fire and Rescue Service, Police Federation and Translink all gathered to watch images of marchers and protesters projected on to 11 television screens.

The long morning was peppered with a series of high level briefings, meetings, phone calls and even visits from officials including Justice Minister Claire Sugden and Anne Connolly, chairwoman of the NI Policing Board oversight body.

PSNI chief constable George Hamilton also dropped in.

While the atmosphere was fairly relaxed there were some early concerns that a number of hoax bombs including one outside the BBC’s headquarters in Belfast, had the potential to seriously disrupt the day.

The alerts were dealt with quickly and easily by Army bomb disposal teams and there was no need to re-route the main demonstration.

After a brief lunch it was time for ACC Martin to drive round Belfast to speak with officers who had been on duty at some of the sectarian interfaces.

At one point he even stopped to help some parade goers from Co Down who had locked their keys inside the boot of their car.

There was also a briefing from the city’s commander Chief Superintendent Chris Noble at Musgrave Street police station before returning back to base to prepare for the return leg of the parade.

This time the focus was firmly on Woodvale, Twaddell and Ardoyne where hundreds of police officers were deployed.

“It has all been building towards this but as you can see there is a soft police presence with officers in cloth caps,” said ACC Martin.

“It is just a case of wait and see at the minute.”

As it turned out only around a dozen members of Ballysillan lodge approached the police barriers and handed in a letter of protest.

When the other two lodges, who were expected an hour later, dispersed before reaching the police lines, the talk was of “de-escalation” and “standing units down”.

But hopes for an early finish were dashed by a two-hour stand-off close to Ardoyne shop fronts during which a number of minor incidents occurred.

Tension increased when it looked like officers were being surrounded but the concerns were short lived and the mood quickly eased.

There was also praise for the efforts of community workers who could be seen on camera removing alcohol from teens and striving to deter young people from engaging in violence.

Just before signing off close to midnight, ACC Martin hailed the efforts of everyone involved: “Any tensions that have existed have been minor.

“Overall, it was a very good Twelfth of July and one of the best in several years.”