The £15 million-plus bill for policing the Union flag protests in Northern Ireland is twice the amount spent by police on the entire marching season in the region last year, commanders have warned.
The security operation surrounding the ongoing loyalist demonstrations has lasted nine weeks while the traditional parading period extends over six months.
The spiralling financial implications of the public order policing were outlined by Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Matt Baggott and members of his command team as they briefed their oversight body, the Northern Ireland Policing Board.
Loyalists have been holding demonstrations since early December when Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days the flag flies over City Hall. A number of the pickets have descended into serious rioting with almost 150 police officers injured in the disorder and nearly 200 people arrested.
"The past nine weeks have seen the Police Service of Northern Ireland hold the fragile line between peace and disorder in Northern Ireland," Mr Baggott said as he updated the board in Belfast at its first public meeting since the new year. "This has come at a cost both physical and financial. A large number of officers have been injured and the cost, both the opportunity cost and cash cost, is already above £15 million."
He welcomed the fact that some of the tension around the issue has appeared to have dissipated in recent days. "The police have played a very full and thoughtful part in ensuring that a very tense and volatile situation did not and does not spiral out of control or compromise the future," he added.
The current running total for the policing operation stands at £15.6 million. Responding to a board question on allegations about incidents of police incivility and brutality during the two month operation, Mr Baggott assured members that he did not condone bad practice and urged anyone who had a grievance to complain. But he also insisted that officers had shown great bravery and restraint in the face of provocation.
"I will say this for officers who have stood facing the abuse in their face - the screaming, the swearing, the violence - having visited them personally on a number of occasions in Antrim hospital, in the Royal (hospital in Belfast) covered in paint and sand, broken noses, to have seen the restraint that they have shown has been magnificent and you will not see that in any part of Europe or the world," he said.
The protest movement has seen weekly marches into Belfast for mass pickets outside City Hall. Under law, organisers of political marches are required to apply to the Parades Commission for permission to hold their event. No such authority has been sought by those involved in the recent Belfast rallies.
While the commission is a highly controversial body in Northern Ireland, with many unionists calling for its abolition, Mr Baggott on Thursday urged board members to step away from the political debate around it and reaffirm the need for people to abide by its determinations. He said that was particularly important given this year's marching season was fast approaching.