The North's chief constable has stressed the impartiality of the police service after the region‘s first minister raised concerns about a perception of bias against loyalists.
Matt Baggott defended the actions of his officers in the wake of Peter Robinson‘s controversial remarks that some Union flag protesters appeared to have been treated differently under the law than some republicans facing criminal investigation.
Mr Baggott insisted today: “All of our actions have been taken impartially and within the rule of law.”
Last week prominent loyalists Willie Frazer, 53, from Co Armagh and Jamie Bryson, 23, from Co Down were remanded in custody charged with public order offences connected to the ongoing flag protests.
On Friday, senior republican Sean Hughes, 51, from Co Armagh was granted bail after appearing in court charged with offences related to the murder of father-of-three Robert McCartney in 2005.
Mr Robinson, who met with Mr Baggott last night, said unionists felt they were not being treated fairly.
“There certainly is a perception out there within the unionist community that when you see several leading republicans getting bail and several leading members of the loyalist community not getting bail that there is a lack of balance in the way these matters are dealt with,” he said.
The first minister also said: “There is a large section of our community who don‘t believe the police have been impartial in dealing with these issues and therefore, in my view (it is) an imperative issue for the police to show why they take decisions, with regard to a set of circumstances, differently than another. That is a matter for the police to show and convince the public.”
The Union flag demonstrations have been ongoing since early December when Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days the flag flies over City Hall.
A number of the earlier protests descended into violence, particularly in east Belfast, with around 140 police officers being injured.
The demonstrations have become more sporadic and less incendiary in recent weeks but the police have warned that the criminal justice operation to bring law breakers to book will continue.
The SDLP has branded Mr Robinson‘s stance “outrageous” and “totally unjustified” and has pledged to examine his remarks for a potential breach of Stormont‘s ministerial code.
Mr Baggott has stressed that bail decisions rest with the judiciary while decisions to prosecute are taken by the Public Prosecution Service.
“Over the past months the PSNI has successfully dealt with an incredibly volatile situation with great patience and professionalism,” he said.
“A situation made all the more difficult by the absence of political consensus. All of our actions have been taken impartially and within the rule of law. No one has been seriously injured.
“For weeks I have been warning about the consequences of law breaking and the fact that evidence was being gathered. There should be no surprises with the outcomes.
“Last week, out of courtesy, I personally briefed all of the mainstream political leaders on our consistent approach and progress. I welcome such dialogue and challenge. At yesterday’s meeting with the First Minister he raised the perception within unionist communities that policing was treating them unfairly and outlined such concerns being raised with him.
“Conversely, we have received very favourable feedback from across all communities regarding our measured approach.
“I reminded the First Minister that prosecutions and bail decisions are made independently by the PPS and judiciary against very stringent criteria. Each case is unique and I have not seen any unfair interpretation of the rules or due process.
“Policing does not hold the solutions alone to the current dispute and grievances which requires renewed political dialogue and innovation. In this regard, I will support fully the development of the (Stormont) Shared Future Strategy and look forward to this with optimism.”