Alex Benjamin is a communications expert with the UUP. He was working in party offices in East Belfast on Saturday as events kicked off. What he saw of the police action clearly shook him up considerably. He takes up the story below:By Alex Benjamin
From the outset it should be pointed out that I have no axe to grind. I’m not an Orangeman and not protestant. But the scenes I saw on Saturday as I worked in Michael Copeland’s and Sir Reg Empey’s offices is East Belfast were shocking and have had a profound affect on me.
The spin coming from the Police and Secretary of State would suggest that Loyalists were solely to blame for the events of the weekend. Having not been up in the Highfield area, I can’t comment on what occurred up there, but from my experience of events in the East of the City, to suggest that the Police acted in a proper, correct manner would be stretching the truth’s elasticity to breaking point.
I have always defended the police, having no truck with paramilitaries of any persuasion, and over the years I have formed the view that paramilitaries are actively hindering development in many working class areas.
That aside, what I witnessed on Saturday was a provocative, rampant police, completely disinterested in taking effective measures to calm the situation, instead opting for heavy-handed tactics which I 100% believe led to the escalation of the situation.
Orangemen and supporters gathered outside the Orange Hall at 2.00pm before making their way up to the Albertbridge to make a peaceful protest. The merits of this protest are not for me to argue. They came under sustained stoning and bottling from Short Strand residents who had clearly come prepared. The police response to the attacks from Short Strand residents was woefully inadequate. Rather than move in to prevent the attacks from continuing they more or less passively stood by and allowed the situation to develop.
When Loyalists began to return stones the Police eventually sprang into action. There was a palpable sense of frustration that the Police were effectively turning a blind eye to Short Strand residents but were ‘rushing’ those on the Loyalist side.
After a period of calm the protesters at the bridge were able to make their way to the interface at the corner of Albertbridge road and Castlereagh Road. Stone throwing ensued. What followed next, in my opinion, utterly defied logic:
The Police surged up the Albertbridge Road. And I mean surged, knocking women to the ground with their Land Rovers and pushing and hitting people who were in their way. Had these people been rioters with scarves around their faces or brandishing petrol bombs they could have at least had an excuse. But women with no weapons and political representatives who were trying to reason with them and defuse tensions where herded like sheep going to an abattoir.
The UUP offices became a safe haven for those caught in the street as Police edged up the road and forced the rioters up towards Templemore Avenue. In the street I saw an elderly man in his 70’s who was forced to the ground, had his head truncheoned and when he raised his hands to protect his head, he had his hands truncheoned too. The force was so great it split his finger open. We managed to get him, concussed and rambling, inside the offices and administer some basic first aid, others followed young and old with head injuries or other injuries.
We called an ambulance which arrived swiftly and departed just as swiftly as some of those injured were reluctant to go to hospital. The ambulance driver said that they couldn’t get out and treat the wounds so I told him we only had basic first aid and said we needed stuff. He produced a bandage out of his pocket and said that was all he could give me!
The Police, now right outside our offices, were clearly amped up and enjoying the situation, many laughed and smiled to each other and I heard some shouting ‘Orange bastards’ or ‘Protestant bastards’ at protestors. Many deliberately pointed rifles or plastic bullet weapons at protestors. It was blatantly provocative and I couldn’t believe my ears or eyes. Some women in the office were hysterical, one woman just sat in the corner with her head in her hands quietly sobbing. It was horrific.
As a Communications professional, I am aware of the tools and various mechanisms that can be used to get your point across in the media. The Police and Secretary of State have been quick to apportion blame and wash their hands of any involvement. The media have been quick to adopt their line, too hastily in my view.
I must say, having witnessed first hand the Police tactics employed and the manner in which they undertook their ‘operation’, my faith and trust in the Police has taken a substantial hammering.