Newton Emerson: North gets new rules for art of rioting

PSNI longer offers itself up as target for rioters but must clarify its strategy

A car on fire in the North Queen Street area of Belfast, close to the site of a contentious bonfire. A refusal to tackle dangerous loyalist bonfires has undermined faith in the rule of law. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

A car on fire in the North Queen Street area of Belfast, close to the site of a contentious bonfire. A refusal to tackle dangerous loyalist bonfires has undermined faith in the rule of law. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

In 1886, recalling a riot in Portadown, the journalist Frankfort Moore famously observed: “Every boy and girl in the crowd understood the art thoroughly.”

Both sides would pile up cobblestones for ammunition, square off to each other until the police arrived, then throw everything at the constabulary.

Moore was making a cynical contrast with “grown-up” rioting in Belfast that year, when more sophisticated tactics cost 30 lives.

For the standard youthful disturbance, however – including youths sent out by their elders – the rules have been fixed since time immemorial.

Since its establishment in 2001, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been trying to change these rules. Its officers no longer offer themselves up as the target, excuse and catalyst for violence. Arrests during riots by snatch squads have been replaced with high-tech evidence gathering to bring charges later. Where possible, instead of getting between crowds, police lines are set up some distance away from crowds – ideally more than a stone’s throw. Trouble is then left to burn itself out.

The change has happened fitfully under three very different chief constables, making it as much of an evolution as a strategy.

Race riots

The first of those chief constables, Sir Hugh Orde, feared the courts would not match softer policing with tougher justice. He often cited the 2001 race riots in Oldham and Bradford and how they were swiftly followed by hundreds of sentences in the four- to five-year range.

The PSNI’s aversion to sparking riots has involved a blatant surrender to paramilitaries on unlawful flags, murals, memorials and anything else whose removal might be 'provocative'

Custodial sentences for rioting were virtually unheard of in Northern Ireland until a decade ago, while cases still routinely take a year to come to trial.

The 2011 London riots underscored this comparison, with emergency court sessions through the night and the evictions of young rioters’ families.

But slowly the message sank in. Prosecutions increased, sentences lengthened and would-be rioters noticed. Most street disturbances over the past decade in Northern Ireland have been loyalist by nature or design. For the past five years, loyalist organisations and representatives have become increasingly vocal in warning young people of the consequences of their actions. Loyalist bands and hangers-on are no longer prepared to push through contentious Orange parades – a critical factor in the resolution of parading issues generally.

That is not to say everything is rosy. The PSNI’s aversion to sparking riots has involved a blatant surrender to paramilitaries on unlawful flags, murals, memorials and anything else whose removal might be “provocative”. A refusal to tackle dangerous loyalist bonfires, mostly presided over by small groups of children, has made the PSNI a laughing stock and undermined faith in the rule of law.

This is the context in which rioting broke out across Belfast on Monday, after the city council removed material from a number of republican bonfire sites.

Resolution

The removals were ordered by Sinn Féin, with SDLP and Alliance support, via a resolution whose timing affects only this summer’s republican bonfires. Unionists were unimpressed by this act of community leadership – some loyalists concocted a conspiracy theory in which Sinn Féin is deliberately provoking bonfire trouble this year, with loyalist bonfires the real target thereafter.

The theory is implausible, but like the rioting it has been fuelled by the sight of the PSNI apparently doing nothing.

Officers protected workers removing the material, as the council resolution left them little choice. But then they sat in armoured Land Rovers and watched, in broad daylight, as adolescents set parked cars alight.

One commuter later escorted to his burned-out vehicle was informed by officers that they could not say what had happened. This suggests arrests will not follow the lack of arrests at the scene.

That evening, trouble spread from the Markets area of Belfast to other inner-city republican neighbourhoods, most notably Divis, where masked youths torched an office building. Again, police sat back and watched. The masks will be a challenge to future prosecutions.

By the end of the night, residents and community representatives were accusing the PSNI of cowardice. However, precedent suggests that if officers had physically intervened, the same people would have condemned them for heavy-handedness.

Do these republican communities have to endure the same lengthy lesson as loyalists, via the same hands-off policing tactics? At one level this would be unnecessary, as Sinn Féin dominates the affected areas and is fully behind the PSNI. However, if youths in these areas are no longer listening to Sinn Féin, who else would pass the lesson on? In Divis in particular, long-running antisocial behaviour suggests the young people involved have lost all fear of the courts.

It seems the boys and girls are playing a new game and fresh rules will be required. The PSNI could assuage concerns over this if it was more forthright about its thinking – it has always been coy about the shift to its current approach. The all-party policing board meant to provide political oversight has been more interested in bickering and grandstanding.

Before the PSNI spends another day watching Belfast ablaze, could it at least explain its own art thoroughly?

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