PSNI chief’s apology after Orange parade attacked in Belfast

PSNI chief constable George Hamilton
PSNI chief constable George Hamilton

The chief constable of Northern Ireland has apologised to Orangemen after a complaints watchdog found police failed to protect them from a republican attack as they returned from Twelfth commemorations.

Members of Ballymacarrett No 6 district lodge reported the episode to the Police Ombudsman, alleging they had been pelted with stones, paint bombs and bottles of urine as they walked past the nationalist Short Strand area of the Newtownards Road in east Belfast on July 12, 2013.

It’s our job to keep people safe, we didn’t do it on that occasion

George Hamilton – PSNI chief constable

Chief Constable George Hamilton said while the Ombudsman’s Office had cleared all officers on the ground of wrongdoing, it had found the police failed to plan sufficiently for violence and had not deployed sufficient numbers of officers into the Short Strand.

“My message is quite plain and simple and unequivocal, I am not hiding behind anything - it’s our job to keep people safe, we didn’t do it on that occasion and for that I am sorry,” Mr Hamilton told the Policing Board.

Residents of the Short Strand claimed their homes also came under attack from loyalists as the ugly incident unfolded.

DUP Policing Board member Robin Newton had asked Mr Hamilton to comment on the Ombudsman’s report at today’s monthly board meeting.

The chief constable said: “The Ombudsman’s report concluded that there was no misconduct identified on the part of any individual officer, however, the Ombudsman did find that the police had failed to protect Orange Order members on their return parade. That was because of a number of shortcomings, mainly around planning for the event, with regard to police deployments into the Short Strand area, that was a shortcoming that the Ombudsman identified.”

Mr Hamilton stressed that the Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire was only allowed to look at the actions of police, so he could not investigate the behaviour of “Short Strand residents” or “some of those accompanying the parade”.

He asked people to look at the report in the context that later that night many of his officers sustained serious injury in riots, some of whom have still not returned to work as a consequence.

Mr Newton said the Ombudsman’s findings were “disturbing”.

“There were people injured,” he said.

“There was clothing and regalia damaged.”

But Sinn Fein Policing Board member Pat Sheehan, who said he was in the Short Strand at the time, insisted the trouble was going “two ways”.

“There was throwing from the Short Strand and also throwing from the Orange side,” he said.

PUP deputy leader Dr John Kyle has welcomed the release of the Police Ombudsman report and said it “takes on added importance” with only weeks until the 2015 parade takes place.

“The onus is on the PSNI to deliver a consistent approach to policing parades as opposed to one that privileges the rights of one community over the other, as I believed happened in 2013 during the incident in question,” he said.

“While the police got it wrong they still apologised to the Short Strand community. This added insult to injury within the loyalist community. The policing operation in relation to the handling of the 12th July 2013 was totally ill-conceived from start to finish.”

Cllr Kyle said people were left “vulnerable”, and added: “It would appear that political considerations were influencing the PSNI operation as opposed to public safety and security.”

Parades Commission determinations for Orange parades past the Short Strand interface in recent years have increased tensions in the area, the Orange Order has repeatedly claimed.

In July 2011, the commission ruled only a single drumbeat could be played along the interface, and stipulated that the ban included, “singing, chanting, whistling, humming or shouting”.

East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, who was a city councillor in 2013, at the time described the decision as “incendiary” and said the commission was putting parade organisers in an impossible position.

The determination was issued the same week that Orange chaplain Rev Mervyn Gibson was interviewed by police about breaches of a ruling two months earlier.

Ahead of the annual Orange Widows’ parade in May 2011, the commission had ruled that only one specified hymn – Abide With Me – could be played as bands passed St Matthew’s Catholic church on the lower Newtownards Road.

Rev Gibson was questioned under caution after some bands played ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ and ‘The World in Union’.

In September 2012, the Parades Commission again imposed a “no music” ruling on bands along a stretch of the Newtownards Road.

Those bands abiding by the determination were heckled by loyalists carrying banners which said, “Play loud and proud” and “We don’t want hymns”.

Speaking to the News Letter at the time, Rev Gibson said the Parades Commission “continues to come out with these stupid decisions”.