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Newton Emerson: PSNI ties itself in knots over dealings with east Belfast UVF

Newton Emerson

Constructive ambiguity has collapsed, like a pile of pallets, on the PSNI. Asked to explain its dealings with the east Belfast UVF at last week's Avoniel bonfire, senior officers, including new chief constable Simon Byrne, blundered through a series of lexical contortions on the difference between a formal meeting, an unofficial engagement and a routine encounter. At one point an assistant chief constable said the PSNI will not meet anyone convicted of membership of a proscribed organisation, which would make half the infrastructure of the peace process unworkable.

The PSNI knows the answer to this conundrum is to forget about concepts of terrorism altogether and pursue ordinary decent organised crime, which is what the east Belfast UVF is really afraid of. Overall, it was clear from Byrne's comments that he understands this completely and is committed to it.

However, it remains tricky in Northern Ireland to be quite so unambiguous.

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Nationalists have accused unionist politicians of lacking leadership in east Belfast for not removing flags and sectarian graffiti in person, as SDLP and Sinn Féin representatives have occasionally done in west Belfast. But in terms of words if not deeds, the DUP has gone as far as anyone could reasonably ask. East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson has been forthright in blaming the UVF for Avoniel and pressing the chief constable to root out the organisation, as “the community want action.”

It is not reasonable to ask for a similar statement on the UDA, as it is still being relatively constructive.

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Boris Johnson has lined up a prominent Eurosceptic to run his Brexit negotiations. Daniel Moylan, who worked with Johnson in his time as London mayor, is an implacable opponent of the backstop and a much-mocked believer in technological border solutions. News of his appointment has reportedly dismayed moderate Tories. However, Moylan's prolific writing about Northern Ireland over the past two years has not been one-dimensional. His consistent theme is that too much focus has been placed on the “narrow technical question” of the border when the real issue with Brexit is the effect on community relations inside Northern Ireland via “deeply held national sentiments”.

He has proposed that London, Dublin and Brussels set up a new structure with international oversight to keep Brexit compliant with the Good Friday Agreement, keep the border open, build community relations and continue peace funding.

That sounds like a permanent backstop-plus.

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Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson has received the usual criticism for calling herself “a soldier in a war”. As the legacy debate rumbles endlessly on perhaps it is worth considering the Troubles as a war, at least as a thought experiment. War has its own international system of laws and courts, some of it applicable to a civil conflict, to which no protagonist in Northern Ireland has ever been held accountable.

Anderson has a conviction for plotting bomb attacks on towns in England.

Under the Geneva Conventions, it is a war crime for any belligerent in a civil conflict to directly target or intimidate civilians or mount operations against places “used only by the civilian population.”

“Wanton destruction of towns” is also a war crime under the Nuremberg Principles.

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UUP peer Lord Maginnis has used parliamentary privilege to claim a senior civil servant at the Northern Ireland Office was paid £10,000 for offence caused by workplace portraits of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. The portraits were replaced with pictures of the Queen meeting Martin McGuinness.

It must be assumed there is more to this story than reported, as the sum is implausible for a matter that appears to have been successfully addressed. Unfortunately, the civil service gave an impression of confirming the story by saying staff must feel free to make complaints, while the NIO issued a boilerplate refusal to discuss an individual's details. With the civil servant in question now the most senior official at the Parades Commission, clarification would be to everyone's benefit.

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NI Water has reported a break-in and vandalism at its water tower in Rathfriland after Sinn Féin's Chris Hazzard asked how it was adorned with union flags and painted red, white and blue.

The long-term solution to keeping the landmark neutral is to paint it as an enormous ice-cream cone, as that is the reason everyone goes to Rathfriland and the first thing they think of when the tower comes into view.

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