Top UVF members ‘behind violence’ in Belfast
Published 07/01/2013 | 11:21
SENIOR members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) are orchestrating loyalist street violence that has seen police come under attack in Belfast on four successive nights, Northern Ireland's Chief Constable has said.
While the violence has erupted at ongoing Union flag protests in the east of the city, Matt Baggott today called for an end to all such demonstrations across the region.
Loyalists pickets have been continuing since early December in response to a decision by Belfast City Council to limit the number of days the flag flies over City Hall.
So far 62 police officers have been injured and 96 people have been arrested.
"Senior members of the UVF in east Belfast as individuals have been increasingly orchestrating some of this violence - that is utterly unacceptable and is being done for their own selfish motives," said Mr Baggott.
The chief constable said he believed the UVF involvement was limited to east Belfast and there was no evidence of a collective endorsement of the organisation.
A number of politicial representatives have been subject to death threats during the unrest - the latest being the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) Assembly member Patsy McGlone.
A parcel containing a sympathy card referring to Mr McGlone and a bullet was intercepted at a postal sorting office.
Detectives from the Serious Crime branch have charged a 38-year-old man with possession of a firearm with intent to cause fear of violence, riotous behaviour and failing to remove a disguise when requested by a constable.
He is due to appear at Belfast Magistrates Court later this morning, PSNI said.
Mr Baggott said he did have the resources at present to deal with the rioting but warned that if disturbances continued, long-term policing objectives, such as the operation to tackle dissident republicanism, could be undermined.
The chief constable said he was concerned that so many young people were taking part in the trouble.
"I would like everybody involved in these protests now to take a step back," he said.
"My ambition is that the protests will come to an end, although you appreciate that the police are not in control of that.
"But if not, at the very least those involved in the protests should be off the road, not causing obstruction, absolutely condemning violence and ensuring that these young people are not involved.
"And that requires a concerted effort from politicians and those who have put themselves up as organisers acting together and from parents and responsible members of the community.
"At the moment there is a lack of control, which for me is very worrying."
Mr Baggott said he would be carrying out a review of the long-term resourcing needs of the police in response to the recent disturbances and disorder which flared on occasion last year.
He said he did not need any extra officers at present, but warned about future consequences if the situation continued.
"It will eat into our ability to deal with what remains a very severe dissident threat, as you will be aware their intent remains as strong as ever," he said.
Mr Baggott said it was important not to overplay the involvement of the loyalist paramilitaries in the trouble.
He said he would not discount reports that the UVF was using the violence as a means to recruit new members but said he had not seen any of evidence of that.
"I don't want to put this out of perspective and I don't want to overplay this - we are talking about east Belfast, we are talking about senior members of the UVF in east Belfast, not with the collective endorsement of the UVF per se, so don't overplay this," he said.
He said the policing operation had already cost millions of pounds.
Despite calls from the leaders of the main unionist parties for the protests to end, some elected political representatives have attended the demonstrations.
Mr Baggott urged politicians to follow the line taken by their leadership.
He also claimed that certain "political manoeuvring" had ramped up tensions in the months prior to the City Council decision.
And he called for a period of calm reflection and an end to the use of intemperate language.
With regard to some of the unelected organisers of the protests, Mr Baggott added: "What I particularly want to see is the people who have put themselves forward without mandate, without having to bother going through an electoral process, they need now to think about their language and their influence, and my encouragement to them would be join the political process, within a democracy, that's the only way decisions should be made."
Many of the protests have been organised through social media and Mr Baggott said investigating the use of the internet was complex.
"It is relatively new phenomenon, it something we are going to have to get used to collectively," he said.
"Social media isn't going to go away and, as a means of galvanising angry people, disaffected people and people with nothing better to do, it is something we are going to have to be increasingly concerned about."
Mr Baggott rejected claims of police brutality, insisting that officers had been "firm and assertive".
"I am not going to defend any use of excessive force but let me be clear on this: we have seen extreme violence with large numbers of people put at risk, including my police officers, my colleagues.
"And the words 'firm' and 'assertive' are entirely appropriate and in dealing with that sometimes we have to use force. Sadly sometimes people get injured because of that use of force, but it doesn't mean to say that that force is inappropriate."
The Chief Constable said officers were being criticised by some for using too much force and by others for not using enough. He said that indicated to him that the response was about right.
"I have never witnessed better policing in my 36 years of service," he said.
"I wonder how some of our European partners would have dealt with this in the last six weeks, let alone other police forces around the world."