The political vacuum is compromising the standing of the PSNI

When criticism is made from both directions it’s often said that the subject of the criticism must be doing something right.  I suspect that’s what Matt Baggott is thinking now over the rows about recent arrests on both sides of the divide. There is an alternative view of course; he may be getting it wrong across the board. Either way a small storm of whataboutery is blowing. It must not get out of hand.

 Willie Frazer is a hero to many and a pain in the neck to many more. But there is something vaguely troubling about his arrest, cold, as a ring leader. I sort of see the point of refusing bail as there are reasonable fears he would raise the temperature and play the noisy martyr all over again. On the other hand it isn’t the darkest conspiracy theory to suggest his arrest is political in the sense that it could be seen as a response to nationalist charges of appeasing loyalists.  I recall Paisley’s arrest and summary trial just after the Action Council strike in Ballymena when he was successfully defended on the grounds that he prevented trouble not incited it ( Arguably he did both, at different times). His arrest was discussed in advance by senior civil servants and army and police  officers  – no question of complete police operational independence then. His prosecution and was seen  (in my view rightly) as a demonstration to emphasise a loyalist defeat. If the situation on the streets had still been hot, they would never have lifted him.

The arrest of Sinn Fein member Sean Hughes in connection with the murder of Robert McCartney was immediately stigmatised by Conor Murphy as a balancing move to the loyalist arrests. Hughes’ grant of  bail contrasting with Frazers’ refusal has of course been denounced by Jim Allister. Who’s next to serve?

The offences concerned were at least post 1998. But on dealing with the past too much is left to the police in default of political consensus.  The police’s efforts to acquire the Boston College tapes, the arrest and the trial of Gerry McGeough for the attempted murder of Sammy Brush and decision to reopen the books of Bloody Sunday are all arguably against spirit of the GFA and are misjudgments which will do little for with truth recovery or reconciliation. All they do is stimulate sectarian reflexes and expose the glaring lack of agreement between the parties to cancel old and  terrible debts.  But crime is indeed the common factor and left to themselves the police feel obliged to take action. But where will the cycle end and how can the police avoid the charge of either arbitrary or political  treatment unless every charge is followed up – which is impossible?

Apart from  insisting on their good faith, an overarching defence of their conduct in recent cases is equally unfeasible for the police to make. They can only explain themsleves case by case in court, if proceedings go that far.  If their credibility is challenged continually, public confidence so painstakingly built up over the past decade will decline. This is not an argument for cover up. But fair criticism and valid questions  that politicians and others level at the police will be devalued  for as long as leaders refuse to live up to the responsibilities of government and persist in acting mainly as sectarian lobbyists.

In this respect, Martin McGuinness has again  struck a better note, rising above the whataboutery this week  over the Derry arrests of dissident republicans, than has Peter Robinson over the loyalist arrests. The first minister is only reinforcing the  dubious impression that these days, the dispossessed are mainly  unruly loyalists. One up to Sinn Fein on the law and order front on the eve of the mid Ulster by-election.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • DC

    Perhaps it’s time that you and your fellow members of the “both sides are as bad as eachother” brigade stopped providing moral cover for that kind of scum? Just a thought

    I am not on this to give moral cover nor to give moral instruction but to explain how things have turned out as they have and no party can walk away having the cheek to blame others.

    Naomi Long said the DUP had 10 years to prepare for change in belfast, I say Alliance had the very same 10 years too.

    You say the DUP caused it with the leaflet, I say SF shouldn’t have tried complete removal.

  • SK

    The democratic decision reached by BCC has been debated to death at this stage.

    Three months, 15 million quid and 150 PSNI injuries later, I think it’s fair to say that the people who are responsible are the ones who actually go out and do the rioting. Stop making excuses for them.

  • DC

    Stop making excuses for them.

    Why give cause for protest?

  • SK

    Because in a democracy, people are actually entitled to disagree with unionists.

    A new and frightening concept for many of you, I know.

  • DC

    so it is a shared future without unionist backing then, terribly useful that.

  • Neil

    Ulster Unionist Party councillor Mark Cosgrove said a union flag protest which had been held in the area earlier in the evening had been peaceful.

    Decent people…provide cover for rioters. What a wally. At what point did the peaceful protest morph into a riot, and what’s the message Mark’s sending here? Joke.

    It’s not a peaceful protest if at a certain point in the evening the peaceful protestors start burning cars, offices and attacking the cops. That’s like saying there’s no violence at Ardoyne on the twelfth because the rioters were fast asleep in bed just a few hours earlier.

    The protest was a riot, the protestors are violent scumbags and 90% or more of people have had enough of this bullshit indulgence of this tiny, unrepresentative rump and the havoc they’re wreaking on society, business and the rest. How many AEPs fired last night I wonder? Zero most likely, if they start using them now they’ll have used them up by the time they ht Ardoyne on the 12th and we wouldn’t want to miss out on the annual shoot a fenian day.

  • SK

    It is a shared future where democracy isn’t simply disrefarded whenever Jamie Bwyson disapproves of the outcome.

    “Why give cause for protest?”.

    Will you be posing that same question to the Orange Order when they march where they’re not wanted this summer?

  • DC

    I would say your stats are right but once again it proves the 1 in 10 are indeed a statistical reminder of a world that doesn’t care!

    a shared future – just upper-middle class unionist froth hiding a form of social snobbery and class hostility?

    Everyone, all parties, have a role in moderating working class opinion especially to help pave the way for sensitive flag compromises. SF didn’t help, the DUP leaflet didn’t, neither did Alliance’s judgment in moving forward in seriously treacherous political waters.

  • DC

    Will you be posing that same question to the Orange Order when they march where they’re not wanted this summer?

    I might.

  • DC [3.14] The news letter ran a poll to see if Robinson’s claim that the PSNI weren’t impartial would be supported. Since it’s original run the other day, it showed 2/3 of respondents did not back Robbo’s spurious claim. The editor was clearly hoping for a different view, so started from scratch to give it’s readers annother to think again, and now, 91% reject Robbos craven calls on behalf of the rioters. I’m still waiting for Robbo to condemn, [without [equivocation], the attempted murder of a police officer by his new pals back around xmas. I’m not holding breath waiting for that.

  • DC


    Re the Newsletter Police Impartiality Poll, same applies:

    A statistical reminder of a world that doesn’t care.

    Popular unionist sentiment has always been pro police and law order so it would take something amazing for that to change, but i am not in the popular train of thought i am in the technical, i find it strange how the police have pretty much supported the protests and now turn in on them and arrest people, despite working hand in glove if not being more of a protest themselves by out-numbering loyalist demonstrators.

  • The DUP and it’s lapdog uup were lulled into thinking the police inaction for the first couple of months was ‘going easy with our lot’ until the court action brought by a nationalist over the illegal parades to short strand,. then Baggott woke up and started doing his job, so the politicians and loyalists were slowly realising this wasn’t ‘playing the game’ as they wanted and believed was being done. And now the squealing starts

  • Comrade Stalin

    There were a few things at play, Daniel. The authorities began to realize they were going to have a problem if the policy of appeasing the road blockers and marchers was extended further, and this came to a head when the Orange Order threatened to stop complying with the requirement to apply for permission to hold parades.

  • Lionel Hutz

    You’re right CS, which to be fair paints a poor picture of policing here. There probably would have been a round up of these rioters after they stopped anyway, but the tougher line taken by the Police on the protests was definitely influenced by what they fear might come. You could be generous and describe it as practical policing but when it comes to policing on sectarian issues (can’t think of a better way to describe these things) you really do need principle and consistency.

    As the court cases show, this is about consistency of approach rather than consistency of the outcome. A consistent approach will mean that different types of protest are policed differently. You cannot complain about the biased policing simply by reference to an arrest count or AED count. You have to go back to the direction given to the police from the outset. With the loyalist protests, the police approached it by facilitating it. With republican protests, the approached them by shutting them down. And that is going to lead to a significant breakdown in trust.

  • DC

    Lionel, the only trouble with your line of thought is that it falls down on the fact that the police have been inconsistent with loyalists as well. Facilitating some and busting others.

  • Lionel Hutz

    DC, they only started to shut down any of them recently. But again even if I was wrong about that, that doesn’t mean that I’m wrong.

    Supposing you could rank all protest on a disruption and violence scale from 1-10. Say the Police stop a Nationalist protest beyond 2 or 3 on that scale but stop a loyalist protest at 5-6 on that scale. That doesn’t mean that all Nationalist protests will be stopped and all Loyalist parades are facilitated. It jsut means that Loyalists get away with more.

    Straight question DC. Do you think that Republican’s waving tricolours would have been so facilitated as Loyalists’s were?

  • DC

    No I don’t think they would have been but then there has been a long and extremely violent anti-police culture in the nationalist community and the police would be paranoid to the conkers of a dissident emerging out of nowhere with an RPG wiping out a good few officers. Something that loyalists are less inclined to consider and ultimately pull off.

  • Lionel Hutz

    Maybe, there’s something in that. But you can see how it is problematic I’m sure.

    Don’t want to just ask you questions but just so I can understand where you are coming from – if that threat you describe didn’t exist would you say that Republicans should be allowed to protest in the way do? Or do you think all protests should be treated the way the Republican ones are

  • Lionel Hutz

    * in the way loyalists do

  • DC

    Would you mind if i answered that with ‘i’m not really sure’ – it all depends on the circumstances, i think nationalists have had human rights policing as have unionists and loyalists, both have been water cannoned off roads and allowed to jump on psni landrovers and stuff at particular points of the year.

    I have some understanding of the grievances within loyalism and it falling out with certain parts of unionism including alliance as if you look across the divide at nationalism, behind closed doors among the SDLP and SF something seems to be in place, there seems to be certain lines agreed that nationalist political parties do not cross – both parties seem to have strict adherence to nationalist ideology; whereas unionist politics are unable to set lines like that, if you look at what alliance did in terms of moving ahead of the unionist bloc despite actually operating and working out of that community it could be seen that it is ahead of the curve, that creates its own change churn that other sections of the wider unionist community are just not ready to come to terms with – and i have to wonder would nationalist politicians set parts of their community up like that in the knowledge that violent protests could potentially follow, embarrassing the wider community and ‘the cause’; ideally within unionism including alliance, i think such lines could be don’t progress any national identity issues such as flags and symbols until such times as there is regional agreement. Block and negate things, rather than what alliance did and create new difficult realities.

    The idea being to use this time to focus on other matters, socio ecomomic ones till the hand is really forced which would mean an outright nationalist majority having to come into play and voting to take the flag down without any alliance amendment needed.

  • DC

    just to add re ‘i’m not really sure’ – it is because i don’t think the policing of the flag dispute is something worth copying, but it has worked in that no one has been killed and things seem to be dying out.

  • Lionel Hutz

    That’s fair enough. I don’t think their exactly the same either. By the way, if their is one of the criticisms that you make that you have persuaded me on it is on you point about Alliance moving ahead of Unionism. This has been the point where Alliance have moved from being a lobby group to a political party. The former can preach all they want but the latter has to take the people with them.

    There is a point to be made about why Alliance didn’t even seem to try to take their voters with them. They were shocked by the leaflets. The leaflets were inflammatory but the issue was obviously flammable. So the DUP and UUP have to answer for making a potentially bad situation actually bad and then worse. But the Alliance Party should have been doing the groundwork on this months ago to take their voters with them.

    Its not like the solution on flags is the most controversial thing in the world. There was a case to be made that Unionist’s would get Sinn Fein actually signing up to flying the flag on certain days and putting through a policy that would take a long time to change if they wanted to. Whilst Unionist’s were getting the flag remaining over city hall in manner consistent with most places in the Union. Its not water tight but I think that a reasonable strong party could have carried that argument. Smart Unionism.

    Ofcourse, the whole controversy is alien. I have never flown a Tricolour, even in the years I lived in the republic. And maybe the Alliance have carried voters with them. The unionists that are not out on the streets. It doesn’t seem that way to me though time will tell.

  • Lionel Hutz

    *is alien to me

  • Zig70

    DC, some of your thinking seems to be justifying that if you think the grass is greener on the other side then you have the right be pissed off. Even though it has been widely reported that west Belfast is poorer than the east and has has less investment. Unionists still spout that nats are still better off. . It look to me the reason for the untruths that unionism believes is just simple prejudice and the politicians don’t want to address this because it would undermine their existence. The truth is probably closer that both sides are looking over the fence saying ‘look at those jammy bastards’. Nats would see the Unionists as having a long history of violence, maybe the grass is a burnt orange. The prospect of Irish culture being imposed on you seems to make you uncomfortable, well, welcome to the party, the Irish in the north of Ireland have been feeling uncomfortable for years. We won’t find a common ground until there is some mutual understanding and street corner education of the other side is replaced with genuine interaction.

  • Comrade[2.50]Yes, that OO implied threat seems to have triggered the alarm bells with Baggott, long past the point when it should have done. Doesn’t inspire much nationalist confidence in Baggott for the season to come, does it? He needs replaced, but by whom? Not Finlayson going by his apology to loyalists that time in the north coast.

  • Comrade Stalin


    This is a tricky thing. Sometimes people get speeding tickets, sometimes they just get a telling off. There are a lot of reasons why the approach might be inconsistent and it is not necessarily because the police are biased. That is why it is extremely dangerous for respected senior politicians to attempt to lend credence to the idea that a conspiracy is at play.

    The reason why some protesters are being prosecuted and some or not seems like a pretty straightforward issue of the public interest to me. A few high profile prosecutions of the leading figures who are engaging in or encouraging the lawbreaking is a good way to get the law enforced and to illustrate the consequences of lawbreaking. It would be impractical and extremely expensive to prosecute every single one.

    I can see right now a number of potential cases that are not being prosecuted. There are photographs of Jim Allister addressing a crowd among whom there are people with their faces covered. The police didn’t arrest them. Furthermore there are clear violations of the law with respect to money being collected, supposedly on behalf of protesters who are in prison; all of this is in violation of the current charities legislation.

  • Comrade Stalin


    It’s a serious problem. Who is going to want to become Chief Constable in an environment where politicians (of all shades) refuse to fully back you in public ? You’ll have noticed Baggott’s sideways barb about political consensus. That comment was aimed at Robinson.

  • David Crookes

    I’m glad that the #flegs business has happened.

    It has shown everyone what unionist politicians are.

    (MALIGNANT GARDEN GNOMES, at one in their hearts with the multitudinous lawbreaking dwarves.)

    If any of us vote for these losers at the next election, we deserve whatever we get.

    For the moment, the nearest thing that we have to a First Minister is the Chief Constable of the PSNI. Maybe in time we shall come to address him as “unus qui nobis cunctando restituis rem”.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh David, does Virgil not continue:

    “tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento (hae tibi erunt artes), pacisque imponere morem, parcere subiectis et debellare superbos”

    If only!

  • David Crookes

    Yes, indeed, five lines later, Seann. So the “sortes Vergilianae” indicate that we still have some way to go.

    It is possible to see the unionist politicians as being consistent after a fashion. They brought the protest to birth, so they can hardly throttle their own child.

    Everyone should watch ‘Der Golem’.

  • Comrade Stalin[12.06]The article in the NL by Alex Kane doesn’t spare Robinson on pointing out where he’s seen pandering to the lowest and staying quit while laws are broken for fear of losing votes. And well he might. He has zero leadership qualities and even less charisma.If he can’t unreservedly support the police consistently, maybe SF have a good case for walking away from Stormont as this was the DUP demand on them in 2007.