By Newton Emerson (for the Irish News)
The distinction between ‘legal’ union flags and ‘illegal’ loyalist flags, as raised by the Ballyclare riots, is a pure Orange herring.
All flags are covered by the so-called ‘protocol agreements’ introduced in 2005 under which the PSNI and other agencies meet ‘community representatives’ (guess who) to arrange where and when they are flown.
The union flags erected outside a Catholic church in Ballyclare breached one of these agreements and hence the PSNI was fully entitled to remove them.
Just to underscore what nonsense the legal versus illegal distinction is, certain “residents” told UTV the loyalist flags weren’t illegal either as “they simply commemorated those who fought in the Battle of the Somme”.
In other words, despite all the elforts and ugly compromises poured into these agreements, ‘community representatives’ reserve the right to change the rules as operational reasons require.
This means causing trouble with the quite deliberate aim of being bought-off.
The protocol system was devised to give real residents, the kind too frightened to speak to UTV, some respite from sectarian branding. Most people do not want flags in residential areas at any time or of any description.
This is particularly true in suburban south Antrim, where young families spill out of Belfast into neutral new developments, only belatedly realising how fragile these peace process paradises are.
The PSNI cannot police every lamppost or protect even the handful of people who might stand up to their local goon squad but as one of the parties to a flag agreement it is supposed to make the deal stick.
Just doing the deal sends a dangerous signal that the paramilitaries are officially endorsed. Failing to uphold it sends an unmistakeable signal that they are also effectively in charge.
However, the PSNl’s latest capitulation is of a different order altogether.
Flag agreements have failed before and even led to violence but never have senior officers apologised for provoking the violence by enforcing an agreement.
That violence included injury to six officers. One was attacked with a concrete block, just like an officer at last year’s Ardoyne riots, for which a man was charged with attempted murder. Another live were injured when their Land Rover was rammed by a hijacked bus, an act of astonishing aggression that almost every police force in the world would consider grounds for a lethal response.
But the PSNI is a police service and its response, from Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay, was to “offer my sincere apologies to those people (guess who) who felt that they have not received the police service that we strive to deliver”. Imagine how it feels to be an injured officer with this equivocation echoing from above.
It may feel even worse if you were one of the officers who took down the non-agreed flags. Meanwhile, at a hastily convened press conference, Chief Inspector Derek McCamley insisted it was “too early to say” if paramilitaries had been involved or indeed if there had been any orchestration of the rioting that broke out simultaneously in three different parts of his command area including the spontaneous appearance of a l00-strong gang in Ballyclare alone.
Imagine how it feels for law-abiding residents in those areas where everyone who spoke to the media was quite convinced it was a loyalist onslaught.
How will they ever take the police seriously again on anything, let alone flags?
Still, we should not be too hard on Messrs Finlay and McCamley.
Policing this political must be ordered from the top which no longer seems to mean Chief Constable Matt Baggott.
His predecessor Sir Hugh Orde was a cynical pragmatist with a penchant for the very darkest arts of PR but even he would never have hung his frontline officers out to dry the way the PSNI did at the weekend.
Instead, the official police line has OFMDFM written all over it, reflecting the priority of our two largest parties to respect each other’s carve-up.
Note how Sinn Fein has been muted on the violence, as it took place in a ‘unionist area’.
Note how the OUP seized the airwaves, with Willie McCrea standing beside PUP spokesman Ken Wilkinson and boasting about the police apology.
Imagine how that feels if you have even the slightest dissident sympathy.
The irony of the PSNI’s spineless stance is that it was probably talked into it for ‘damage limitation’. If the authorities don’t get a grip on loyalism’s new grant application game, the damage it could do is practically limitless.