Police to step up arrests over flag protests
More than 170 people have been arrested as a result of the flags disorder and “multiples” of that number could face police action when the investigation into the street violence is completed, a senior PSNI officer has warned.
Det Supt Sean Wright said yesterday that police would be adopting a firmer approach to “criminal acts” arising from the protests.
He disclosed that 174 people had been arrested since the protests over the British union flag began on December 3rd and of these 124 had been charged.
Det Supt Wright said police would be investigating illegal acts around the 1,100 or so loyalist protests that had taken place in the past eight weeks. The investigation would include examining CCTV footage which police had gathered. There would be “many arrests to come”, he added.
“Potentially” thousands of people could come under the attention of the PSNI and the Public Prosecution Service.
“Blocking the road is a criminal act. If you are obstructing the highway we will be investigating that. If you want to attack the police, throw petrol bombs at them, if you want to fire fireworks at them, those are criminal acts,” said Det Supt Wright. “If the disorder finished today the investigation goes on. That’s the way it works.”
The PSNI is also in regular contact with the Parades Commission over whether some of the loyalist gatherings constitute illegal parades. This issue is particularly acute with regard to what are becoming weekly Saturday loyalist parades from Belfast city centre to east Belfast after demonstrations outside Belfast City Hall. Other senior PSNI sources, however, acknowledge that there are practical problems about whether it would be wise to create a parading issue over this weekly protest.
Flashpoint in Belfast
Police and the commission must determine in their discussions whether such a judgment on the east Belfast parade would only serve to create a “mini-Twelfth-type” flashpoint in Belfast every Saturday,
Senior PSNI sources said the whole street action issue was complex and made clear that a “sweep the protesters off the streets” solution just could not work, such are the numbers involved.
One officer said that during some of the weekend protests more than 5,000 loyalists could be participating in the demonstrations.
He indicated that a PSNI force of 7,000 officers would not be in a position to force an end to all the nightly protests in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland.
He said that when there were periods of rioting and civil disturbance during the Troubles that there were more than 30,000 RUC officers and British soldiers available to try to handle such disorder.