PSNI police chief George Hamilton has responded defiantly after the Supreme Court in London finally confirmed that the PSNI were wrong in their decision not to stop intimidatory loyalist flag protest marches four years ago.
There were widespread disturbances across Belfast in December 2012 after councillors voted to no longer fly the British Union Jack flag every day of the year.
At the height of the protests, the PSNI adopted a hands-off approach to loyalist aggression as 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 living in the 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 claimed at the time that they were prevented from taking action because of legislation protecting the loyalists’ right to protest.
They said there was no “clarity” on the situation, while the then PSNI Chief Matt Baggott himself said “human rights” was the reason the disorder could not be prevented. Nationalists viewed the policing decision as political and an attempt to appease loyalist paramilitaries.
After a case was taken against the PSNI by one affected nationalist resident, a High Court judge said in 2014 that the police should not have allowed the parades to take place. However, this was challenged by the PSNI and the matter ended up in the Supreme Court, Britain’s highest court, which found unanimously this week that the PSNI was wrong.
“The police failed to recognise that the integrity of that [parades] system depended on the enforcement of the requirement to notify an intention to hold a parade,” it said. “It is the police, not the Parades Commission, who have the responsibility for preventing un-notified parades from taking place.”
Lawyer Padraig O Muirigh, who represented the resident who brought the legal challenge, said the ruling clarifies the law and powers available to police and has “wide-ranging implications for the policing of unnotified and illegal parades in the future”
SDLP justice spokesperson Alex Attwood described the court ruling as “unambigous”.
“The PSNI had an inescapable duty to prevent, where possible, what was plainly illegal,” he said.
East Belfast Sinn Fein representative Mairead O’Donnell said her community had been “under siege” from illegal parades during the flag protest.
“I commend the local resident who has pursued this case through the courts on behalf of all the people of Short Strand. For months the people of the Short Strand had to endure parades passing through our area related to the loyalist flags protest,” she said.
“Essentially the community was under siege from these illegal parades. The community challenged the PSNI to do something about it but they refused.”
She added: “(The) judgement from the Supreme Court found that the PSNI had to power to stop these parades all along but they failed to do so. The PSNI got it wrong and the community in the Short Strand suffered.”
In a mealy-mouthed response, current PSNI chief George Hamilton apologised to those “inconvenienced by this parade” but said he would not necessarily issue different orders if similar trouble broke out again.
“It gives clarity but it also identifies the importance of police operational discretion,” he said. “So this judgment is not saying every time there is an un-notified parade the police should stop it.”