The news that GAA members and Orangemen engaged in a cultural visit exchange at the weekend was a positive development following on from the negative announcement in late May that loyalists and the DUP had cynically decided to ignore the views of the vast majority of residents in the upper Ormeau community and to arbitrarily decide to drape the district in loyalist flags for a quarter of the year (and, more than likely, much longer than that, going on previous form.)
Following on from the welcome cultural exchange at the weekend, residents in the shared community have organised a protest outside the former PSNI station at 7pm tonight to highlight their campaign for the protection of shared and diverse communities at a time when loyalists are engaged in a concerted campaign of sectarian intimidation against residents in the nearby Cantrell Close shared housing community.
During the past week, the PSNI Chief Constable, George Hamilton, stated his belief that “there is a real need for wider nationalism to take yet another step in terms of policing” while calling for nationalist parties to do more to encourage young nationalists and republicans to join the service.
Hamilton’s focus was understandable as he was seeking to shift the blame for the poor numbers of Catholics in the PSNI away from himself and the leadership of a police service that has, at critical times, struggled to pass the impartiality test required to convince the doubters within nationalism that his organisation can truly be trusted to operate in a professional and non-partisan manner.
Legacy issues (and attitudes) have undoubtedly played a significant part in slowing the pace of change with regards to perceptions of the policing service post-RUC, but the singular failure of the PSNI to act decisively to protect shared and diverse communities from loyalist bully boys on an annual basis continues to have a corrosive effect on confidence in the PSNI.
The contrasting images in the above tweet immediately strike a chord with nationalists. In the first, PSNI officers are blocking a road to allow loyalists to erect flags, bunting and an arch in the centre of a shared community (Glengormley). There is no consultation with residents yet the PSNI willingly oblige the demands of loyalists to dance to their tune in spite of knowing that the street furniture is deeply divisive.
In the second, an elderly man has been arrested and is being taken away after attempting to remove a banner in Moygashel erected by loyalists to remember a UVF man, Wesley Somerville, who was part of a sectarian gang that killed members of the Miami Showband. Somerville blew himself up during the attack.
The PSNI’s rationale for arresting the elderly man was that they were seeking to “prevent a breach of the peace”. To my knowledge, he was taken to a police station and subsequently released without charge.
I have some sympathy for the PSNI with regard to the second incident.
As I noted in the previous article on this subject, Northern Ireland can be broadly divided into single identity communities and shared communities.
There is nobody in this society who does not instinctively know the difference between the two.
In the single identity communities, it is common to see flags, murals, parades and commemorations which are largely non-contentious. The PSNI acted in Moygashel to prevent a loyalist crowd that had gathered from reacting violently to their banners being removed. That the banner could be viewed as hurtful or provocative to outsiders is wholly understandable, and indeed many within the single identity community may also share deep reservations about the presence of the Somerville banner.
Yet, given the divisive nature of remembrance in our society, the PSNI acted sensitively to remove the gentleman, pacifying the assembled crowd in the process. The decision to not prosecute on grounds of a breach of the peace was also the right decision.
There is an issue about the nature of remembrance in our society within both single identity and shared communities which needs to be further explored and discussed, but it is foolish to not acknowledge that there is a distinction. This weekend, loyalists will gather on the Shankill to parade in remembrance of a senior UVF figure, Trevor King, killed during the conflict. This parade will be perceived widely as non-contentious in the sense that it will not impact on the lives of the Other community.
The Parades Commission was established to primarily deal with the contentious nature of parades organised and routed for shared districts or areas primarily identified as being of the Other. The success with which the Commission has performed its duties can be seen in the decline in annual parades disputes.
Put simply, regulation works.
The PSNI already have the power to act to protect the integrity of shared and diverse communities.
They demonstrated this when intervening in Moygashel on the basis that the man’s action could lead to a breach of the peace as he was seeking to remove a loyalist banner in an overwhelmingly loyalist district.
It is entirely in the gift of the PSNI to act in defense of shared and diverse communities, like the upper Ormeau Road, and to indicate (as they have done in the past) that those seeking to lay claim to mixed communities by erecting flags will be arrested on the grounds of a potential breach of the peace.
That they choose not to, and instead actively facilitate those involved in so doing, is something George Hamilton will have to address if he is genuine about wanting to increase both confidence in the PSNI and membership of the service amongst the nationalist community.