Northern Ireland

Union flag protest: Legal challenge brought against police

Union flag protest Image copyright PACEMAKER
Image caption Union flag protests have been ongoing since 3 December 2012.

A nationalist resident cleared the first stage in a High Court challenge to ongoing loyalist flag protests on Friday.

He was granted leave to seek a judicial review over claims that police are allowing illegal marches every week from east Belfast to the city centre.

The resident brought the challenge against the PSNI and the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.

Loyalist demonstrations have been ongoing since 3 December 2012.

The judge was told that the Catholic neighbourhood where the man who brought the challenge lives is "being besieged in a situation which has turned the law on its head".

Flag protests

Barrister Karen Quinlivan QC said: "It's our case that the police response has effectively facilitated and encouraged a wholesale bypass of the legislative scheme put in place by parliament to deal with contentious parades in Northern Ireland."

Emergency proceedings were brought over demonstrations being held every Saturday since the decision in December to restrict the flying of the union flag at City Hall.

Violence has flared as loyalist protesters pass the Short Strand enclave en route to their destination.

The resident was granted anonymity at the start of the hearing.

His case centres on a claim that the weekly flag protest to and from City Hall is an unauthorised parade.

Under the terms of the Public Processions (NI) Act 1998, established following major disorder across Northern Ireland linked to the Drumcree dispute, notification of parades must be given to the Parades Commission.

'Illegal activity'

Claiming the legislation was being repeatedly violated, Ms Quinlivan contended: "This is not confined to the issue of those engaged in violence.

Image copyright Charles McQuillan
Image caption The legal challenge has been brought against Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and the PSNI.

"Every single participant in that march is engaged in illegal activity. Every single participant ought to be arrested and prosecuted for breach of the legislation."

She questioned why no action was being taken against organisers appearing on television shows and in the press.

"It's one thing for loyalists to flout the law, it's another thing for the police to facilitate that," the barrister argued.

Ms Quinlivan further submitted that her client's right to privacy was being violated by the protests, arguing that police have an obligation to offer protection.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has been drawn into the case due to her alleged failure to exercise powers to prohibit public processions.

At one stage in the hearing, Mr Justice Treacy questioned the timing of seeking a judicial review.

Pointing out that the situation appeared to be improving, he expressed concern that court proceedings could be counter-productive.

But Ms Quinlivan replied that evidence shows things are getting worse rather than better.

"People are feeling more and more besieged, people are feeling more and more threatened," she said.

The barrister referred to a statement from Sinn Fein Councillor Niall O'Donnghaile, who attended court along with party colleague Alex Maskey, which claimed Short Strand residents feel unsupported by police.

Police response

Tony McGleenan QC, responding for the PSNI and secretary of state, argued that the challenge fell outside the governing legislation because no prior notification of demonstrations has been given to the Parades Commission.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Some of the protests in Belfast have turned violent and deterred people from coming into the city centre

He stressed, however, there has been a "gargantuan" operational effort to deal with trouble linked to the flag protests.

"It's quite wrong to say the police are turning a blind eye to illegality and facilitating public disorder," he said.

"Police have devoted massive resources in dealing with difficulties since December 3."

He confirmed that 128 officers have been injured during the violence.

Police have made 181 arrests, with 128 of those charged with offences.

Mr McGleenan added: "I say the court should show a degree of deference to operational decisions made by police in those circumstances."

However, Mr Justice Treacy ruled that an arguable case had been established against both the PSNI and secretary of state.

He granted leave to apply for a judicial review and listed the case for a full two-day hearing beginning on 16 April.

Although the judge acknowledged his decision was no indication of the final outcome, he said: "This case does raise important points both in relation to the obligations on the PSNI and also on the secretary of state."

Loyalist street demonstrations have been taking place since Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days the union flag is flown at Belfast City Hall.

The majority of the street demonstrations have passed without incident, but some have resulted in serious rioting.

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