The First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson has attacked the policing and judicial system in the North after three ringleaders of the recent flags disturbances were arrested last week.
Robinson lashed out over what he suggested was discrimination against loyalists when two of those arrested, Jamie Bryson and Willie Frazer, were initially refused bail. After months of disturbances involving riots, roadblocks and illegal parades, the two leaders of the ‘flags protests’ and a third man, right-wing extremist Jim Dowson, were arrested and charged last week with public order offences. Frazer and Dowson were later awarded bail.
The violence began following a vote by Belfast City Council in December to reduce the number of days on which the British flag is flown over City Hall in central Belfast. It reached a climax in January with several days of rioting by the unionist paramilitary UVF outside a small nationalist enclave in east Belfast.
After weeks of police inaction, the force was apparently stung into action when it was accused by the Parades Commission of ignoring law-breaking in connection with the loyalists’ illegal parades.
Bryson managed to avoid arrest for two days last week, and even teased the PSNI through the internet over their failure to find him. He continues to be refused bail, although it was unlikely he would have accepted bail in any event -- he had previously urged loyalists to reject bail conditions as a protest against their arrest.
Appearing in court earlier today [Friday], it was heard how the PSNI had made considerable efforts to capture the 23-year-old; firstly at his home, and secondly after being spotted in Bangor, County Down. He was eventually found in a converted attic at the home of a pastor, who, the court heard, attempted to prevent the PSNI from gaining entry into the house.
Bryson later claimed that following his arrest, he had carried out a one-man hunger strike for more than 24 hours.
The judge at his bail hearing, while refusing bail, condemned as “ill-informed” comments this week by the First Minister. The DUP leader had urged the North’s top judge, Declan Morgan, to be more lenient with loyalists (and harsher on republicans) in order to address “public disquiet” over what he said were “perceived differences in their treatment”.
At the same time, Robinson also carpeted the police over the arrests and bail decisions. On Monday, PSNI chief Matt Baggott and his senior command team were summoned to Stormont, where the First Minister complained that two republicans had recently been awarded bail. He was referring to the terminally ill Brian Shivers, whose conviction for a 2009 ‘Real IRA’ attack was quashed in January, and Sean Hughes, a former political activist accused of attending an alleged ‘IRA meeting’ in Belfast eight years ago.
Speaking after the meeting, Robinson claimed a “large section” of unionists “don’t believe the police have been impartial in dealing with these issues”.
“Therefore, in my view [it is] an imperative issue for the police to show why they take decisions, with regard to a set of circumstances, differently than another,” he declared.
SDLP assembly member Conall McDevitt, a member of the Policing Board, said Mr Robinson’s comments were “outrageous” and “only serve to undermine the PSNI” and heighten tensions.
McDevitt received a loyalist death threat this week, while a viable bomb, the second in two weeks, was left outside a Catholic church in Newtownabbey, north of Belfast. Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew was also the subject of a hoax loyalist bomb attack.
Robinson said his meeting with Baggott provided an opportunity for the PSNI chief to promise he would go easier on the loyalist extremists. He said he had only advised him to say that his force would be “even-handed” in the future.
Alliance Assembly member Stewart Dickson, whose offices were set on fire by loyalist gangs earlier this year over his party’s support for the flags decision at Belfast city council, accused the First Minister of only increasing tensions.
“This has just confirmed what we already knew; that Peter Robinson is only interested in the politics of ‘us and them’,” he said.
“No politician should ever seek to direct a judge on an individual case.
“He has said that he is the First Minister of the people but this statement shows that he is only interested in being the First Minister of Unionism.”
Rejecting Robinson’s comments, Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly also pointed to the immense disparity between the judicial processes for Catholics compared to Protestants. He pointed out that 147 nationalists had been charged in connection with political protests in recent months, compared with only three loyalists.
The perception of loyalists is “not the reality”, he said.