NATIONALIST RESIDENT GRANTED LEAVE OVER UNION FLAG PROTESTS

Union flag protestors gather at Belfast City Hall

Union flag protestors gather at Belfast City Hall

A NATIONALIST resident has been granted leave at the High Court on Friday to seek a judicial review over the legality of loyalist flag protests in east Belfast.

The Short Strand resident – known only by the initials ‘SE’ – was seeking leave to apply for a judicial review of the PSNI’s handling of the situation.

He sought leave to apply for a legal review of the actions of the PSNI in their policing operation surrounding the protests and of the Secretary of State for her refusal to prohibit them.

Barrister Karen Quinlivan QC, for the applicant ‘SE’, said the legislation was being repeatedly violated.

“It’s our case that the police response has effectively facilitated and encouraged a wholesale bypass of the legislative scheme put in place by Parliament to deal with contentious parades in Northern Ireland,” she claimed.

“Every single participant in that march is engaged in illegal activity. Every single participant ought to be arrested and prosecuted for breach of the legislation, said Ms Quinlivan.

Ms Quinlivan questioned why no action was being taken against organisers appearing on television shows and in the press.

“It’s one thing for loyalists to flout the law, it’s another thing for the police to facilitate that,” she added.

Mr Justice Treacy said the situation appeared to be improving, and expressed concern that court proceedings could be counter-productive.

But Ms Quinlivan replied that evidence shows things are getting worse rather than better.

“People are feeling more and more besieged, people are feeling more and more threatened,” she said.

A statement from former Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Niall Ó Donnghaile – who appeared in court with his Sinn Féin colleague Alex Maskey – was read to the judge, in which the local councillor said residents feel unsupported by police.

Tony McGleenan QC, representing the PSNI and Secretary of State, said because the Parades Commission had not been made aware of the demonstrations, the challenge fell outside the governing legislation.

He revealed that 128 officers have been injured during violence and 181 people have been arrested, with 128 charged.

“It’s quite wrong to say the police are turning a blind eye to illegality and facilitating public disorder,” said Mr McGleenan.

“Police have devoted massive resources in dealing with difficulties since December 3,” he said.

Mr Justice Treacy ruled an arguable case had been established against both the PSNI and Secretary of State.

“This case does raise important points both in relation to the obligations on the PSNI and also on the Secretary of State,” he added.

He granted leave to apply for a judicial review and listed the case for a full two-day hearing in April.

Sinn Féin MLA Alex Maskey welcomed the decision and said he believes the Short Strand community will be satisfied with the ruling.

“While everybody hopes that these marches will be brought to an end, this community cannot go on being affected in such a manner and have taken action in the courts.

“It is now abundantly clear from this decision that both the PSNI Chief Constable and the British Secretary of State have a case to answer. It is a disgrace that that Short Strand residents have had to endure this level of intimidation and disruption on an ongoing basis.”

A weekly demonstration has taken place at Belfast City Hall every Saturday since the council decision in December to limit the flying of the Union flag to 18 designated days.

Some protestors returning from the demonstration to east Belfast passed the Short Strand interface, where violence broke out and a number of houses were damaged last month.

The resident, who has asked to remain anonymous, claimed the protests should be treated as parades, making them an offence if the Parades Commission is not notified.

Solicitor Padraig Ó Muirigh said his client felt he had “no alternative” but to bring the case to the High Court.

“We’ve had two months now of disorder and illegal parades through this area.

“This could have been prevented from going to court if they had a different policing strategy in relation to these illegal parades or indeed an intervention from the Secretary of State,” he explained.

There have been violent exchanges between loyalist protestors and nationalist residents near Short Strand following several of the demonstrations.

Nationalists argue the weekly Saturday protest is an illegal parade.

Protests have been taking place since Belfast City Council voted to change its union flag policy on December 3.

One regular aspect is a protest at the council every Saturday when protesters come from east Belfast, demonstrate outside the city hall and then return on foot in a group.

Meanwhile, police have said senior officers had a frank and constructive dialogue with a group involved in organised union flag protests.

The meeting with the Ulster People’s Forum took place on Tuesday.

The group has now called on people involved in protests to stop blocking roads.

The majority of the street demonstrations have passed without incident, but some have resulted in serious rioting and injuries to more than 100 police officers.

Main roads have also been blocked on many occasions.

A police spokesperson said: “Police were explicit that all protests need to be lawful and peaceful.

“Discussion also took place in relation to the human rights framework that underpins policing, breaches of the law and the associated criminal justice strategy that is being implemented.

“Police welcome the announcement from the Ulster People’s Forum which encourages legal, peaceful protest. Senior police officers have agreed to meet with the Ulster People’s Forum in the future.”

In its statement, the Ulster People’s Forum said: “The Ulster People’s Forum (UPF) have a consensus that those who took part as representatives of their various areas on Saturday feel that the peaceful protests should move to a new phase of white line protests and also localised protests outside council offices to coincide with monthly meetings in each respective area,” a statement said.

“The UPF feel this move to white line protests is a positive step which has been born out of calls for leadership from the grassroots protestors and we feel that we have the beginning of a process that will provide a strategy for moving forward.”

‘Flag dishonoured’

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has said claims that Northern Ireland’s Britishness is being eroded are “simply untrue”.

She said this was illustrated by Belfast City Hall itself, a building steeped in British cultural tradition and symbolism.

She made the comments in an address to young Conservative members in Belfast.

Ms Villiers told members at Queen’s University on Wednesday evening that Northern Ireland’s place in the UK was “probably stronger now than at any point in history”.

She said those who had engaged in violence had dishonoured the flag, damaged the economy and risked weakening support for the union.

“In other words, these people are undermining the very causes they claim to believe in,” she said.

Solicitor Padraig Ó Muirigh said his client felt he had “no alternative” but to bring the case to the High Court.

“We’ve had two months now of disorder and illegal parades through this area.

“This could have been prevented from going to court if they had a different policing strategy in relation to these illegal parades or indeed an intervention from the Secretary of State,” he explained.

 

 

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