The PSNI illegally facilitated violent and intimidatory loyalist flag disturbances, according to ruling by a High Court judge in Belfast this week. The PSNI’s handling of the demonstrations also breached the human rights of a nationalist resident subjected to the disorder.
At the height of the flags protests, during December 2012 and January 2013, the PSNI adopted a hands-off approach to loyalist aggression following a decision by Belfast City Council to reduce the flying the British flag over council buildings.
Enraged loyalist mobs blocked roads, rioted and held scores of illegal ‘protest parades’. The largest of the parades travelled weekly from east Belfast to the city centre, and involved mass violence and intimidation against those nationalist estates they passed en route.
The violence was allowed to continue for months with minimal interference from the PSNI, creating one of the biggest controversies over sectarian policing in recent years. The PSNI absurdly claimed at the time that they were prevented from taking action to halt the disturbances because of legislation protecting the loyalists’ right to protest.
They said there was no “clarity” on the situation, while PSNI Chief Matt Baggott himself said “human rights” was the reason the disorder could not be prevented. Loyalists could not simply be “swept off” the road, he said.
Nationalist commentator Brian Feeney said the unofficial PSNI policy was to avoid confronting loyalists. “In other words appeasement,” he said.
But in a case brought over the failure to tackle the weekly processions in east Belfast, the judge ruled this week that the PSNI had “misdirected” itself.
A man who lives in the nationalist Short Strand district went to court and won a judicial review brought under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Lawyers for the resident pointed out that the PSNI allowed unnotified processions to take place and failed to arrest those involved in organising and taking part. They told the court he had been left besieged by the serious disorder, violence and attacks on his home.
“It is evident that [the PSNI’s ACC Will Kerr] was labouring under a material misapprehension as to the proper scope of police powers and the legal context in which they were operating,” the judge ruled.
He said the PSNI had allowed to marches to take place despite knowing they were associated with serious public disorder, and long after they had held talks with march organisers. He also questioned why, over three months after the disturbances began, only six of the thousands involved had been arrested.
Padraig O Muirigh, lawyer for the Short Strand resident, described the judgment as “hugely significant” for the policing of any future parades and protests.
“My client hopes that this will prevent any recurrence of what happened last year when his home was attacked while police facilitated these illegal parades,” he said.