Posted By: April 19, 2013

Newton Emerson.Irish News. ( Belfast). Thursday, April 18, 2013

EAST BELFAST has been surrendered to the UVF. The PSNI[ Police Service of Northern Ireland] made that crystal clear in its response to the erection of ‘1913’ UVF flags along Belmont Road.

These flags were “not related to a proscribed organisation”, the PSNI declared after residents complained.

 Really? Men in balaclavas block the road with a cherry picker, put up flags emblazoned with the historical antecedent of a proscribed organisation then angrily defend themselves via the Twitter accounts of the UVF’s political wing, yet that is not “related” to the proscribed UVF?

We are down the rabbit hole here, instructed like Alice in Wonderland to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

When the media challenged the “not related” statement the PSNI went quiet for a couple of hours before claiming there had been “no breaches of traffic legislation relating to the erection of flags”.

Really? So anyone can slip on a balaclava and a high-visibility jacket and direct cars about with pompous little hard-man aggression? The Roads (Northern Ireland) Order 1993 makes it an offence punishable by a £500 fine to “in any way obstruct the free passage along a road without lawful authority”. It also requires anyone planning to obstruct a road to consult with the relevant Stormont department. This is not an obscure piece of legislation. Any business erecting an unauthorised sign will be fined under another section of the same order, as Belfast’s Apartment Bar found out before Christmas when it hung a banner in its window to attract customers deterred by the flag protests.

The flag protests are of course what this is all about.

 An appearance of peace has been restored to east Belfast by taking fringe figures out of circulation while unofficially authorising the UVF to control the streets. One of the chief grievances aired by loyalists during the flag protests was that the law is not being evenly applied, with republicans allowed to flaunt paramilitary symbolism and displays in ‘their’ areas while plotting to expunge all lawful British symbols.

In fairness to the PSNI, it is hard to see how New Labour’s ridiculous anti-terrorism legislation could ever be applied to Northern Ireland, evenly or otherwise. Under the Terrorism Act 2006, which applies to the whole United Kingdom, it is a criminal offence punishable by up to seven years in jail to “glorify the commission or preparation” of acts of terrorism “whether in the past, in the future or generally”. This covers just about every statement, publication, parade, event and mural by every republican and loyalist group. Many of our political parties fall foul of it regularly, as does almost the entire programme for the ‘decade of centenaries’.

Faced with an unworkable law, the PSNI has plainly decided to ignore it where there are no local objections. Faced with ensuing claims of pro-republican bias, the PSNI is now plainly allowing a loyalist free-for-all in east Belfast whether locals object or not.

However, the excuse of an unworkable law only takes the police so far. Since 2005 the official Joint Protocol in Relation to the Display of Flags in Public Areas has supposedly provided a workable compromise, requiring ‘community representatives’ to reach agreement on flags with residents, the PSNI and government agencies.

 Years of progress through the protocol were thrown away in 2011 when the PSNI apologised to the UVF for taking down a flag outside a Catholic church in Ballyclare, despite the agreement the flag had breached and the loyalist rioting that followed.

 Now the PSNI is apparently happy to involve only the ‘community representatives’. Responding to complaints from residents and politicians that nobody had been consulted over the east Belfast UVF flags, a PSNI spokesman blithely declared that “organisers have given their assurances that these flags will be removed immediately following next Saturday’s parade”.

Hence the PSNI is largely to blame when it complains that the flag protocol is redundant. As criticism of its surrender in east Belfast mounted, the PSNI piously announced that “the only long-term resolution to the display of flags in public areas will be reached by political consensus”, adding that it looked forward to an “updated protocol” from Stormont.

 This sounded very much like passing the buck for the consequences of its appeasement policy, just as the PSNI tried to do to the Parades Commission during the height of the flag protests, requiring the commission to give the chief constable a public lecture on the law.

When it comes to symbolising the PSNI, the law and loyalism, a cherry picker couldn’t be beaten.