Police deal with UVF, UDA brings change in protest dynamics
Loyalists engaged in illegal flag protests are facing the threat of arrest this week for the first time since the disturbances began.
Roadblocks over the removal of the British Union Jack flag from Belfast City Hall have brought traffic chaos to the North since early December. In the past few weeks, large-scale riots have erupted in east Belfast in an obviously orchestrated manner.
But events on the streets have taken a turn following a meeting between PSNI chief Matt Baggott and the leadership of the unionist paramilitary UVF last week, and the violence appears now to have largely ended.
Baggott is understood to have met representatives of the UVF and UDA on Thursday, 17th January, as part of a carefully choreographed series of events. Earlier that day a statement was released by loyalist Church and community leaders - and backed by the paramilitaries - calling for an end to the trouble.
This statement was said to have justified a private meeting between Baggott and the leaders of the loyalist murder gangs. A deal was agreed, the details of which have not yet emerged, and the paramilitaries agreed to use their influence to reduce the violence.
Both the UVF and UDA have long demanded an end to investigations into their past crimes including sectarian murders, and a simultaneous increase in the official “community aid” schemes which channel millions of pounds to both organisations.
The talks have now resulted in a change in tactics by both the PSNI and the loyalist groups involved in the disturbances.
On Saturday, UVF gang members openly provided ‘security’ during a loyalist march from Belfast City Hall to east Belfast, and ensured that the violence was ended.
A similar march the week before resulted in hand-to-hand fighting with residents of the nationalist Short Strand and hours of rioting.
The PSNI have also adopted a marked change in tone. “Blocking the road is a criminal act,” PSNI Detective Superintendent Sean Wright said on Wednesday, eight weeks after the roadblocks began. He said the PSNI had begun “moving proactively” to arrest people at the scene of “illegal protests or scenes of disorder”.
The Parades Commission, who are tasked with handling the routes and conditions of sectarian parades in the North, have said they are also now monitoring the loyalist marches, after being bystanders for the past two months.
The end of orchestrated rioting and the PSNI/UVF ‘clampdown’ on the protests, now entering into their eighth week, has been broadly welcomed by the public and the business community.
The flag protests this week have been smaller, fewer in number and largely peaceful. Some loyalists and unionists supporting the quasi-political ‘Ulster People’s Forum’ have continued to engage in street roadblocks, and have been subjected to arrest. Eleven loyalists were arrested on Monday evening as the new regime took effect.
Ulster People’s Forum spokesman Willie Frazer said his group were now planning a “massive” demonstration in a shift in tactics. He said the group would engage in legal actions, and apply to the Parades Commission in regard to its parades for the first time.
Up to 600 loyalists are to take part in the first ever legal flag protest on Friday. The Parades Commission has approved the demonstration which will pass through the mainly nationalist lawn of Castlederg, County Tyrone, without restrictions.
Hundreds of processions have been held along public roads without consent from the Parades Commission since flag-related demonstrations began on December 3.
“It’s a sign there are different things coming and that’s a sign of the type of stuff that might take place,” Frazer said.
“I know there’s going to be a big one coming. They are saying they are not the numbers out on the streets there were 20 years ago. They are maybe going to get a surprise. There are plans for one big massive one [protest].”
Another flag protest leader, Jamie Bryson, called on loyalists arrested for blocking roads not to accept bail conditions and go to prison instead.
He characterised the reduction in the flying of the British flag above Belfast City Hall, now only raised for 17 ‘designated’ royal events, such as the birthday last weekend of the ‘Countess of Wessex’, as an attack on civil rights.
“The road we will travel will not be easy. Our freedom and liberty is under attack and we must remain strong and united,” he declared.
“Freedom isn’t free and it’s something we all take for granted until such times as it is under attack and we are oppressed.
“The road ahead will be difficult and many could end up being held in a lonely cell for the crime of loyalty to the crown and peacefully protesting. However, know this, at the end of it all we will emerge victorious.
“Whether in a lonely cell or soaring as an eagle, freedom is in the heart and the mind.”
Mr Bryson also announced that his organisation had set up a “political prisoners group”.