The PSNI Chief Constable is in London today just as policing matters on the continuing flag protests around Belfast and beyond take an interesting turn. A turn involving the Met. Yesterday came news that the PSNI has drafted in Metropolitan Police officers who dealt with the aftermath and massive arrest operation in the wake of the August 2011 riots in England.

Since Belfast City Council decided to reduce the number of days upon which the Union flag flies over City Hall, there have been demonstrations and riots across various parts of Belfast and beyond, but mostly in Loyalist East Belfast. Thus far police have made 174 arrests and charged 124 people with disorder.

24 belfastriot g w Belfast riots: retrospective policing

Watching those riots unfold night after night, you could not help but be struck by the restraint shown in PSNI tactics right down to and including on-street arrests.

No snatch squads here. Basically the riot cops contained the crowds, took the incoming bottles, stones and the odd petrol bomb, sprayed them all with water-cannon every now and then, and essentially waited til they got bored, cold and went off home.

But yesterday, news via UTV and Detective Superintendent Sean Wright of the PSNI, that more than 70 officers are investigating the seven weeks of disorder throughout the region.

Hundreds of hours of CCTV and a major evidence-gathering operation is underway.

There are wider implications here, not least a number of news organisations including ITN left wondering if the PSNI will approach them with a court order forcing the handover of unedited video of street disturbances. Broadcasters are usually – rightly – reluctant to hand over any such material unless forced by law, for the simple reason that it compromises the safety of news crews on the scene the next time it happens and we are not and never should become, agents of the police or any other state agency.

Sadly , the nuance of this is long-lost on the streets. Whether broadcasters hand over uncut video of a riot by being forced via a court order or do it willingly matters not one jot with a bunch of angry masked kids chucking rocks around – the next time a riot unfolds we are seen as police agents which is more than unfortunate, it’s dangerous.

In Belfast recently we had one cameraman injured in the leg and then the forehead on different nights. Mercifully the injuries were not serious.

But the PSNI are now intent on doing a Met. Hundreds of people in Belfast and beyond can expect the early morning knock on the door in coming weeks. the courts can expect busy traffic – they had to sit at weekends in England after the riots in 2011.

DS Sean Wright said the PSNI is now “moving proactively to arrest people at the scene of illegal protests or scenes of disorder and following up as quickly as possible in delivering more arrests and more people before the courts”.

And don’t think you are safe writing threatening material on social media either. Earlier in the week a judge in Belfast ordered Facebook to remove two pages connected with allegedly threateningly material.

Yesterday UTV quoted DS Wright saying:

“To date we have referred over 40 cases to the PPS regarding comments made on Facebook and Twitter, however none to date have met the threshold for prosecution.”

He also said:”Blocking the road is a criminal act.” Since at the time this blog received a lot of comments that roadblocking is criminal and the police must act upon it, let me shed some light on this important and continuing issue.

So it’s not simply riotous assembly – but the roadblocking too. In many cases this involved Mums and children – often small children at that.

At the time I asked the PSNI about this on several occasions. Different officers indicated that there was a softly-softly approach. No arrests at the scene where Loyalists were peacefully blocking traffic. But now it seems the follow-up begins.

I was told the lack of arrests on-scene was due to concerns about escalating the trouble. Obstruction and parades law had to be held in balance with – would-you-believe – Human Rights Legislation? Welcome to modern public order policing.

The PSNI told me :”To remain within the law protestors should not block roads or prevent the free flow of vehicle or pedestrian traffic. The protest should not be conducted in a manner or location that is likely to cause a breach of the peace.”

Yet on the recent Belfast Friday night rush-hour protests, scores of roads were blocked around the city and the PSNI were far too stretched to do anything about it, even if they wanted to at the time in terms of arrests.

So will those women, children and men, now face the law the PSNI claims they have broken and for which they say they will face the consequences? We shall see…

What follows is the PSNI legal guidance sent to me when I asked the simple question: “If blocking a road in protest is illegal – why don’t you clear people off the road? ”

Take a deep breath. Here goes:

” The Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 (PPNIA) creates a number of offences related to participating in and protesting against public processions. These must be viewed in the context of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), which incorporates the ECHR into United Kingdom law.

A parade, protest or other assembly may be technically in violation of the PPNIA, but lawful in HRA terms.

Where a group of individuals gather with the intention of proceeding to a designated place, if they have not notified police of their intention to take part in a procession, once they move off from their initial point to make their way to their final destination they are engaged in a public procession.

Taking part in an un-notified public procession is an offence under s. 6(7) of the Public Procession (NI) Act 1998.

If a large number of persons congregate at a venue, this is an open-air public meeting (Article 2 Public Order (NI) Order 1987 “PO(NI)O”). No notification to PSNI or the Parades Commission is required.

Under Articles 10 and 11 ECHR (freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly), the PSNI are required to facilitate peaceful events, regardless of their subject matter. This includes events that are not in compliance with the PPNIA. ‘Facilitate’ does not mean that an event must be allowed to last indefinitely or at any cost.

However, the rights and presumptions to peaceful protest, outlined in Articles 9 to 11 of the ECHR are not absolute rights.

The European Court of Human Rights has acknowledged that “in a highly charged community dispute, most courses of action will have inherent dangers and difficulties and it must be permissible for the police to take all of those dangers and difficulties into consideration before choosing the most appropriate response.” (PF & EF v United Kingdom re the Holy Cross dispute).”

That last paragraph is the clue. All things considered the police in Belfast allow people to block the roads for an hour or two. You won’t get nicked. But they’ll be watching, videoing, photographing. It is potentially not just the masked rioters who can expect the early-hour door-knock.

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