EXCLUSIVE: POLICE BOSSES have on Monday afternoon instructed PSNI commanders to keep all roads in their areas open this evening during province-wide protests in a major escalation of the Union Flag row.
Belfast Daily understands that PSNI chiefs want to minimise disruption to the public as protestors try and bring Northern Ireland to a standstill at 6pm this evening.
According to security sources, the protest plan has been codenamed ‘Operation Shutdown’ and its aim is to block roads up and down the country, snarling up rush hour traffic and causing massive delays for homeward bound commuters.
But loyalists believe the police plan will lead to “serious confrontation” with protestors on the streets.
The PSNI’s Assistant Chief Constable Dave Jones said on Monday afternoon: “We are aware of a number of planned protests across Northern Ireland this evening and are determined to do everything we can to ensure people can go about their normal business.
“People have a right to go about their daily lives, to shop and to socialise, to pick up their children on time and get home to their families without being held up by these protests.
“The vast majority of all communities in Northern Ireland simply want to enjoy the festive period with their friends and families in peace.
“We will continue to have sufficient resources in place to deal with this activity and will endeavour to keep disruption to a minimum.
“However, I am appealing to those wishing to protest to consider how their actions are affecting the wider community.
“Police remain fully committed to delivering a safe and secure Christmas for everyone. An extensive evidence gathering operation will be put in place and where appropriate people will be brought before the courts.”
In a message on Monday, loyalists were urged to mobilise across the province and bring roads to a standstill.
The message, obtained by Belfast Daily, reads: “Calling all loyalist people of Lower Shankill Estate on Monday, December 17 at 6pm Brown Square.
“Take to the street, every estate, road, town and city in this country.
“We need to bring this country to a standstill.
“The police won’t be out in force as they won’t have the numbers.
“A peaceful protest and then a message will hopefully get through.
“Text or ring your friends and family who don’t have Facebook and let them know.
“If your are going to take part in a whole country peaceful protest share this message and get the message across. Thanks.”
Said a security source: “If this shutdown comes off as is planned, police resources will be stretched to the limit.
“The thin blue line will be an even thinner blue line.
“Officers in the TSGs (Tactical Support Groups) have been working flat out these past two weeks and are exhausted.
“During the recent trouble, many of them hadn’t seen their families for days.
“The overtime bill for the past fortnight is probably going to cost the PSNI millions of pounds.
“We had to bring extra catering staff in to keep the men on the ground in food because they were working all the hours they were needed at the frontline to try and keep the peace.
“TSG was such short staffed that ordinary uniform officers had to be drafted into the ranks to keep their numbers at the required levels.”
The ‘Operation Shutdown’ plan comes as the First and deputy First Minister called for an end to the ongoing loyalist protests against the decision to reduce the number of days the Union flag flies at Belfast City Hall.
In a joint statement, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness said politicians had to work together to find “an agreed solution”.
They said: “We recognise and support the right to peaceful protest but the way forward is through dialogue.
“The current protests are damaging Christmas trade and the local economy as well as disrupting peoples’ daily lives.
“An absence of street protests would provide the space to allow us all to work together to find an agreed solution.”
The latest in a series of protests saw around 1,000 loyalists demonstrate peacefully in the city centre on Saturday amid a heavy police presence.
Protesters also disrupted rush hour traffic in Belfast last week and iIt is believed more flag protests are being planned this week.
The Progressive Unonist Party (PUP) is expected this week to launch a judicial review of the Belfast City Council decision and have it reversed.
The party is currently awaiting back legal advice as it believes the process surrounding the removal of the flag earlier this month was “flawed” and “illegal”.
Violence has erupted following a number of street protests, which have been held across Northern Ireland after councillors voted to only fly the flag on designated days at city hall and not all year round.
Forty people have been arrested so far in connection with the disorder.
Almost 30 police officers have been injured and a number of politicians have been subjected to death threats.
Two peace rallies were held in Belfast at the weekend, with over a thousand people taking part in a ‘non-silent’ demonstration on Sunday to show “the world that Northern Ireland has moved on from the Troubles”.
The UUP and DUP said they hope to reveal an initiative to defuse the flag protests on Monday.
However, loyalists, still furious over the council decision, are determined to drive home their anger by bringing Northern Ireland to a standstill at tea time on Monday.