Matt v Newt on the PSNI’s Ballyclare capitulation to loyalists

In an unusual step (in his own words), the PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott decided to pen a letter to the Irish News published this morning in reply to a column written by Newt Emerson in the paper yesterday.

Emerson’s article (subs required) was entitled ‘PSNI pawns in loyalist grant application scheme’ and in the piece, Emerson lambasted the PSNI for capitulating to the marauding loyalists in Ballyclare.

In the piece, Emerson noted how six police officers were injured in the loyalist violence, including one after being attacked with a concrete block, noting how this offence in Ardoyne last year led to a charge of attempted murder against a Spanish citizen recently. Furthermore, Emerson recounts how the assembled loyalists also drove a hijacked bus into a land rover, injuring five officers.

But it is Emerson’s assertion of political interference which seems to have provoked Baggott into responding with such haste:

 “Policing this political must be ordered from the top which no longer seems to mean Chief Constable Matt Baggott….the official police line has OFMDFM written all over it.”

What is clear is that the PSNI are entitled to remove flags erected with the intention of intimidating the minority catholic population of the overwhelmingly unionist town, even within the terms of the ‘protocal agreement’ in place in the area. The loyalist response was as violent and intense as anything witnessed in other riots over the summer period. Subsequently, the PSNI apologised for their operation and did not object to the re-erection of the offending flags outside of the Catholic Church.

Furthermore, there has been a distinct absence of PSNI activity in relation to arresting the loyalists responsible for the rioting in Ballyclare, suggesting that the chastened PSNI certainly appear considerably less interested in arresting loyalists involved in these riots than those implicated in rioting in other parts of the north.

The Chief Constable’s letter of reply raises as many questions as it answers (again, subs required.) In stating that the decision to apologise “was taken following the significant feedback from local groups on the consultation process,” Baggott seems to be suggesting that the PSNI should be apologising far more regularly for its actions than is presently the case. For example, the policing tactics in Ardoyne were criticised by Fr Gary Donegan as well as representatives of both the SDLP and Sinn Fein, yet there has yet to be an apology for those actions. If the criteria for seeking a PSNI statement of remorse is merely the collation of significant feedback from local groups, then that criteria would appear to have been more than met. Yet a reciprocal apology to nationalists would serve only to further dent both the credibility of the PSNI and provoke a crisis of leadership, indicating an inability to make soundly based tactical decisions which could be stood over at a later stage.

Secondly, Baggott’s claim that the willingness to apologise is “a sign of our willingness to listen and excellent local leadership, when we are humble enough to acknowledge the concerns of others” is rather disconcerting when one recalls that the incident was a simple matter of the PSNI seeking to act in defence of a minority community who others were attempting to intimidate. Quite who the PSNI decided to listen to is a question that deserves further exploration, not least since the appearance of DUP MP Willie McCrea to announce the PSNI apology whilst standing beside prominent loyalist spokesperson, Ken Wilkinson, suggested that all strands of unionist-loyalist political opinion were united in pillorying the PSNI whilst ignoring or downplaying both the actions of the rioters and the sectarian motivation behind the initial move which precipitated the PSNI’s actions.

Thirdly, Baggott refutes the claims of political interference in robust tones, stating that he would not tolerate such an intervention and directly rejecting the specific charge of OFMDFM intervention:

“I would not tolerate any political interference in operational policing nor any compromise of the impartiality or operational independence of the PSNI. OFMDFM have had no part in this nor any previous operational decisions.”

But none of what Matt Baggott said actually addressed the core difficulty emerging from the PSNI’s behaviour in Ballyclare.

The message sent out by the PSNI was that it cannot be trusted to face down loyalists in the area, and allowing itself to be publicly humiliated by apologising and turning a blind eye when the flags were re-erected was a monumental error for a police service supposedly interested in promoting a vision of non-sectarian policing into the future.

Again, Newt Emerson:

“Note how the DUP seized the airwaves, with Willie McCrea standing beside PUP spokesman Ken Wilkinson and boasting about the police apology. Imagine how that feels if you have even the slightest dissident sympathy.”

Matt Baggott is going to have to do much better to prove that what Emerson correctly labelled the “spineless stance” of the PSNI  is not repeated.