POLICE chiefs have warned of a tougher response from officers over the ongoing Union flag street protests.
And a senior detective heading a 70-strong team investigating recent protests and violence said anyone who blocked roads, wore masks or were involved in street disorder faced arrest.
That could have the potential for thousands of arrests of angry loyalists who have taken to the streets to show their opposition to Belfast City Council’s decision on December 3 to only fly the Union flag on designated days.
The warning came hours after flag protest leader Jamie Bryson urged supporters arrested for public order offences to refuse bail and go to jail instead.
The PSNI are also in talks with the Parades Commission over the weekly Union flag protest at Belfast City Hall on a Saturday.
Police bosses have asked if the Parades Commision should make a legal determination about flag protests at the City Hall.
Last week police used a display sign warning protestors not to wear masks or conceal their identies beyond a certain point at Belfast City Hall.
The PSNI said: “The police are involved in ongoing discussions with the Parades Commission to try and identify the best way to address the complex issues within the remit of the Public Processions Act.”
A spokesperson for the Parades Commission said: “The Public Processions Act 1998 makes it clear that where people wish to process in a public place they are under a duty to notify the commission.
“The commission is currently clarifying the legal position in relation to the ongoing events taking place in Belfast on Saturdays.”
The PSNI has set up a dedicated team in a “major incident room” to gather evidence of criminal activity.
They are also being advised by two senior Metropolitian officers, who oversaw handling of the London riots.
The PSNI said the Met officers will not be “directly involved” in policing the flag protests, but are providing the investigative team “with expert advice and peer support”.
More than 100 PSNI officers have been injured during loyalist protests since the campaign began on 3 December, following a council vote to limit the number of days the flag is flown at Belfast City Hall.
Most of the street protests have passed without incident but some have resulted in serious rioting, injuries and arrests.
On Wednesday, the PSNI said it has set up a “specialist investigative team” that will trawl through hours of video and CCTV for evidence of criminal acts such as blocking of roads, the destruction of property or the attacking of officers.
Detective Superintendent Sean Wright confirmed that the PSNI has deployed additional officers to the operation and opened a “new, major incident room” to gather evidence on those involved in disorder.
“The team, which is made up of over 70 detectives, police staff and specialist investigators, will be relentless in the pursuit of those who are responsible for the violence in recent weeks,” he said.
He confirmed that 174 arrests have been made since the flag campaign began in December.
More than half of those arrested to date are under the age of 21.
Det Supt Wright added: “Persons who are masking their faces, breaking the law, involved in public disorder and blocking roads will be arrested and we want teenagers to understand that there are serious, potentially life-changing consequences to the actions they decide to take now.”
He said the young people involved were risking a criminal conviction that would damage their employment prospects and limit their travel options, as it would affect future visa applications.
The officer also called on parents to take more responsibility, to know “where their children are and what they are doing” and to discuss the consequences of breaking the law.
But protest leaders plan to forge ahead with plans to continue with their opposition to Belfast City Council’s decision to only fly the Union flag on designated days.
Jamie Bryson, a spokesman for the Ulster People’s Forum, said it had set up a “political prisoners group” to help anyone jailed for “civil disobedience and peaceful protest”.
“Freedom isn’t free and it’s something we all take for granted until such times as it is under attack and we are oppressed,” said the UPF spokesman.
“The road ahead will be difficult and many could end up being held in a lonely cell for the crime of loyalty to the Crown and peacefully protesting.
“However, know this- at the end of it all we will emerge victorious.”