Leading article

Serious consequences of unionist confusion

Members of the PSNI are well aware that they will face close and entirely legitimate scrutiny as they go about their always difficult and often dangerous duties across our divided society.

It is essential that our policing structures are fully accountable, and that the various issues which will inevitably arise along the way are addressed in a fair, measured and transparent way.

However, it is equally important that police officers are treated with respect by the public in general and elected representatives in particular as they try to cope with highly pressurised circumstances.

The small number of extremists who have been viciously targeting police in loyalist districts over recent days have been so far been incapable of articulating the reasons for their anger, although some commentators have suggested that a range of motivations may be at work.

These bizarrely include the Brexit-dictated Northern Ireland protocol, the lockdown regulations and the consequences of social deprivation, none of which could be blamed on the PSNI by any rational individual.

The most persistent rumour is that the loyalist violence is somehow linked to the decision by the authorities not to bring prosecutions in connection with the Bobby Storey funeral, although the beleaguered chief constable Simon Byrne has made it abundantly clear that he disagreed with the ruling.

Many unionist politicians have displayed a consistently confused attitude towards the Storey case, sending out bellicose statements condemning the police and Mr Byrne without taking the trouble to analyse the stated position of the Public Prosecution Service.

It needs to be acknowledged that the strikingly poor judgment displayed by Sinn Féin representatives on the day of the Storey funeral in west Belfast last June began the entire sequence of events but some unionist figures cannot escape their responsibility for influencing the atmosphere in which the confrontations of recent days happened.

Police officers have behaved with professionalism and restraint throughout the upheaval, even though more than 30 of their colleagues have been injured after being attacked with bricks, bottles and petrol bombs.

Suspected rioters, including several in their early teens, have already been detained and it must be expected that other arrests will follow shortly, with the prospect of jail sentences being imposed on those who are eventually convicted.

It has been an alarming period which has again demonstrated the risks still surrounding the significant progress made over policing during the last two decades.

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