Northern Ireland

PSNI wins loyalist flag protest handling appeal

Union flag protest in Belfast in December 2012 Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption A campaign of loyalist street protests took place following Belfast City Council's vote on flying the union flag

The PSNI has won its appeal against a ruling that police wrongly facilitated loyalist flag protests.

Judges ruled that a decision to first manage major disruption then later bring charges against offenders was well within the police's discretion.

They also found proportionate steps had been taken to protect the human rights of nationalist residents potentially exposed to the weekly demonstrations.

In April, a High Court judge said police had not understood their powers.

The verdict was related to weekly processions from east Belfast into the city centre during December 2012 and January 2013.

'Flawed and unfair'

Demonstrations were staged in response to the decision to restrict the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall to designated days only. It had previously been flown all year round.

A man, identified only as DB, who lives in the nationalist Short Strand area, went to court claiming his home had been attacked by protesters and that the PSNI had failed to provide assurances that it would prevent any future parade past the area.

He also claimed his human rights to privacy and family life under European law had been breached.

In a previous ruling, the High Court judge ruled that the commander in charge of the operation around the protests wrongly believed he was hampered by law from stopping the parades and arresting participants.

Lawyers for the PSNI appealed against the findings, claiming they were flawed and unfair.

'Public safety first'

They argued that senior officers were fully aware they had the power to stop any illegal protests, with plans in place to block the earliest marches.

Those intentions only changed after intelligence revealed loyalist paramilitary involvement in associated violence that could pose a risk to life.

The police attitude was public safety first, criminal justice consequences later, the court heard.

Judges were also told of the level of resources deployed to deal with troublemakers and the decision to bring charges against passive demonstrators.

Ruling on the appeal on Tuesday, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, who heard the case with Lord Justice Girvan and Mr Justice Weir, said: "The issues facing those policing this major public disruption which extended far beyond Belfast to all parts of Northern Ireland demonstrated the enormous difficulties for those policing modern societies in circumstances of community conflict and heightened tension.

'Difficult situation'

"We consider that the decision to manage disruption and pursue a subsequent criminal justice charging policy was well within the area of discretionary policing judgment which such situations require in light of the challenges posed by the circumstances."

Sir Declan said management of unnotified processions was not dealt with by the Parades Commission, but by police using public order powers.

He said the panel of judges did not believe there was "anything in the management of the issues arising from these parades by police" to suggest the Public Processions (NI) Act 1998 and the Police (NI) Act 2000 had been undermined.

Allowing the appeal, he added: "This was a difficult situation in which proportionate steps were taken to protect the Article 8 rights of the applicant and the other residents of the Short Strand."

Following the verdict, lawyers for DB indicated they would take their case to the Supreme Court in London.

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