Travels through Northern Ireland

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)

Chief Commander Andrew Freeburn is a PSNI area commander, working out of the Tennent St. station. North Belfast represents an area with low levels of education and high levels of unemployment. Every July the Orange Order (a Protestant group) marches, and passes through a piece of land about 150 meters long. This land, consisting mostly of storefronts (including Chinese and Indian Restaurants), is deemed to be a Catholic area. Last year on the night following the parade, and the subsequent three nights, there were massive riots with more that 85 police officers injured – some very seriously.

I don’t have access to the compiled footage that Freeburn used to walk us through the events surrounding the police response to these riots, and so I have done my best to link to various videos which contain bits and pieces of footage that were shown to us.

Before the parade even began, the Orange Order would have had to request permission to hold the parade through the Parades Commission. This body is composed of a mix of community leaders, political leaders as well as professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc). They are designed to act as the final approval on parades, taking this decision out of the hands of the police, as it used to be. Once the Parade Commission makes its ruling, then it becomes law. This leaves the police to implement that law. Freeburn sees the parades as a choice of serious risk versus serious risk. You have the Protestants exercising their right to assemble, and the Catholics exercising their right to protest.

Prior to the parade day police have a policy of no surprises. They sit down with community leaders and tell them what the police response will be to various levels of violence. This is done so that if a water cannon is deployed then it does not come unexpectedly.

The day (July 12th) starts with a morning parade that passes with only a few protesters on the side of the road. The parade then passes back through in the evening, by which point a sit-in has begun. With the world media’s watching the police must remove the sit-in Catholic protesters to allow the Protestant parade to continue on the path approved by the Parades Commission. I like the video below for several reasons, the first being that you can see, as Freeburn called it, the “graduated and flexible response” of the police. They issue three verbal warnings for the protesters to disperse, then attempt to arrest one individuals but when they resist the police back away… gradually using more force to arrest the protesters. The second reason I like this video is you can really see the intrusiveness of the world’s media, there to capture cable-TV news gold but showing little respect for the efforts of the police to de-escalate the situation.

This next video illustrates a few points. The sad fact is that a lot of the youth you see rioting don’t feel that they have a future, and they don’t care if they have a criminal record. They don’t see themselves as ever getting a job. Around 1:30 the footages changes to helicopter footage taken by a PSNI helicopter. Until about 3:50 you see the PSNI’s attempt to hold the line. This line has been place there to allow for the gradual response depicted in the first video. Around 3:30 you see particularly violent attempts by the rioters to ramp a metal pole into the line. When Freeburn described the actions by police to hold the line as ‘heroic’, I think it was an understatement. To physically put yourself in between two groups of people who are determined to do violence against each other is impressive.

During the last portion of the video you see a police land rover get immobilized after its tires are slashed. You see the rioters attempt to turn the jeep over, while surrounding jeeps try and keep rioters away from the immobilized jeep. Freeburn remembers hearing over the radio the pleas of the officers inside the vehicle asking for backup. After several minutes they request permission to use plastic bullets. They are told, “Yes. Save your life.” It is a sad situation, the aggressiveness of the rioters towards the police seems unfathomable. Although not seen in this footage, another jeep manages to get in front of the immobilized vehicle and physically push it back to safety.

The riots didn’t end by police efforts. They ended on the 5th night when the community held a mass vigil on the very spot where the riots had been taking place.

To say that these riots define this community is utterly false. It is a peaceful place 360 days of the year. The police have year-long efforts to attempted to de-escalate the situation around the parades, including youth programs that create opportunities and look for leaders within the youth that can then be used to inspire others to want to better themselves.

Freeburn was then gracious enough to take our questions. Both the questions and answers are my best attempt to paraphrase what was said.

What is the role of alcohol in these riots? It was only adults in the sit down protest, and those actions inspire the youths who rioted for the next four nights. And yes, alcohol and illegal substances do play a role. That is why the police try and do outreach through out the year.

If you have a background in one of these communities, how do you table that within the police? Previously the police force was primarily Protestant, and then they began 50/50 recruitment. You overcome any basis through training and through briefings. I don’t think emotions come into play. We have Polish officers, Chinese officers, Protestants, Catholics. The golden thread is to protect people’s rights.

What needs to happen to change this yearly cycle of riots? There are three to four hundred parades a year, with only two or three that are contentious. Before the parades the communities often negotiate, offering concessions in order to make them peaceful. Those sometimes break down. I want to see this contested space become a shared space. The contested space is only 150 meters. The police can play a part in that process, which is bigger than just policing. There needs to be a great understanding from both sides, and more mature conversations.

How do you keep your police force modern? It all comes back to the day-to-day policing and there has been a change in how policing is delivered. The fact that members of the community call us to take care of a problem, and that the police can deliver – that is good. But then you get something like the Rosemary Nelson report and we are pulled back into the past. The question is, how do you deal with the past? This is a question that is asked all over Northern Ireland. You need to strike a balance. The PSNI tries to move on and change. We also have a zero tolerance policy for sectarian, racist or homophobic comments or actions. There is literally a book of words we are not allowed to say.

What is the most challenging part of this? The riots because it is not indicative of what happens 360 days of the year, but they are dangerous and hugely frustrating. It is hard to go back to the community a couple days later, after the parades have happened. Sometimes it is about realizing it is all baby steps, with a couple forward and several back. But the direction of travel is forward. Last year I went into a community center after the parades and took very hard criticism. I then went to take with a parish priest, full of doubt and he said I was looking at it wrong. Ten years ago, the police would never have been allowed into the center to have a conversation. There has been progress.

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