Northern Ireland

Chief constable wants urgent review of flag code of conduct

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Media captionChief constable Matt Baggott made the remarks at the meeting of the policing board

The chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has called for an urgent review of the code of conduct that deals with the contentious flags issue.

Matt Baggott made the remarks at a meeting of the policing board.

He added that the PSNI needed a clear role to deal with the flag issue.

In recent weeks hundreds of paramilitary flags have been put up on lamp-posts lining main arterial routes in east Belfast.

They were flown ahead of a parade to mark 100 years since the foundation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), but, despite assurances from organisers, the flags have not been taken down.

The police have said that they are not responsible for removing the flags.

Mr Baggott said: "The placing of flags in places where they are not wanted is sectarian, it is not acceptable, it is wrong.

"Flags placed to deliberately upset or offend others may not be criminal but it is most certainly wrong."

The policing board heard that although flags were not illegal, the act of erecting them could be considered a breach of the peace.

'Clear political support'

However, Mr Baggott said officers had to weigh up whether intervening would create a greater disturbance.

"If there is a potential for greater breach of the peace or disturbance by police actions we will always put public safety first. That is our decision-making policy.

"Flags on flag poles are matters for the roads service; they are matters for the council and others who at the moment are not involved. We need to be very clear and have the political support to define what the PSNI's role is in all this," he said.

A flags protocol from the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister has not been reviewed since 2005. The chief constable said the issue should be dealt with swiftly.

Image caption The flags were erected in east Belfast

"I am becoming frustrated and I know colleagues are. In the absence of anybody else doing anything the PSNI stepped into the gap and that in itself is controversial.

"I would really value some more detailed conversations with the first and deputy first ministers' office so that protocol can be redefined, reasserted and made suitable for everybody," added Mr Baggott.

Speaking afterwards Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly described the PSNI's lack of action over paramilitary flags as unacceptable.

"People don't really care about flags when they are in areas where they are accepted. But, when they start appearing around interfaces, it is clearly a huge step backwards and raises tensions.

"The PSNI are saying it's not their job to take down flags but, it is their job to keep the peace. To take a policy of inactivity is not a policy at all," the North Belfast MLA said.

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