PSNI to 'step up' flag protest arrests

PSNI to 'step up' flag protest arrests

A senior police officer stepping up the operation against those blocking roads across Northern Ireland revealed he has drafted in Metropolitan Police who dealt with the 2011 London riots.

So far 174 people have been arrested and 124 charged after disorder following loyalist flag protests. Demonstrations began in December after a Belfast City Council decision to reduce the number of days when the Union flag is flown at city hall.

Speaking on Wednesday, Detective Superintendent Sean Wright said more than 70 officers are investigating the seven weeks of disorder throughout the region.

DS Wright said they are working through hundreds of hours of evidence gathering and CCTV footage.

"I would expect that we would have many arrests to come," he added.

The police officer said the force is "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".

"Blocking the road is a criminal act," said DS Wright.

If you are obstructing the highway we will be investigating that. If you want to attack police, if you want to throw petrol bombs at them, if you want to fire fireworks at them, those are criminal acts.

Det Supt Wright

"We will come to some arrangement whereby as many people as possible feel and understand the consequences of their actions," he explained.

In an effort to bring the continued disorder under control, the PSNI is liaising with two senior investigating officers from the London Metropolitan Police who were directly involved in dealing with the riots of summer 2011.

DS Wright said they gave him "useful insight into what they had to deal with and to provide me with some peer support".

"We don't know everything we have to learn from the experiences of our colleagues and it seemed to me quite opportune to draw on that experience," he said.

Earlier this week, a Belfast judge ordered Facebook to remove two pages connected with loyalist protests.

The Detective Superintendent revealed a specialist team from the PSNI are investigating threats made using social media and a number of cases had been referred to the PPS for further examination.

"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 explained.

Persons who are masking their faces, breaking the law, involved in public disorder and blocking roads will be arrested.

Det Supt Wright

Last month a 13-year-old boy was charged after disorder broke out following a flag protest in Belfast. Detective Superintendent Wright said more than half of those arrested are under 21.

"There are consequences to people of that age group being arrested," he said. "They are limiting their future life choices."

"We will facilitate lawful, peaceful protests. When it becomes unlawful and breaks down into public disorder and violence the police will step in," he said.

© UTV

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