Leading article

Alarm over provocative Shankill display

It is completely reasonable for those who oppose the introduction of an Irish Sea border to set out alternative proposals, lobby political representatives and engage in authorised public protests.

What is not acceptable is that they should organise large and illegal parades which involve a range of masked figures and culminate in provocative displays close to flashpoint areas.

The scenes witnessed on the Shankill Road in Belfast on last Thursday, as well as on a number of other recent occasions in other loyalist districts, were alarming in every way.

There can be no excuse for balaclava-wearing individuals taking over main roads for demonstrations which are followed by the burning of symbols associated with other traditions.

Serious errors of judgment have been associated with public gatherings on both sides of the political divide during the pandemic, particularly during the Bobby Storey funeral last year.

However, the Shankill event was at an entirely different level and could only be regarded as a calculated attempt to increase sectarian tensions as the loyalist marching season approaches in an area where prolonged rioting broke out only a matter of weeks ago.

It is also striking that individuals who strongly backed the Brexit campaign are in complete denial over the way in which it inevitably led to what has become known as the Northern Ireland protocol.

The initiative was not the work of northern nationalists and the Irish government, despite the claims of some loyalists, but was instead introduced as part of the withdrawal agreement negotiated between Boris Johnson and the EU.

Fears about the consequences of regulating new security arrangements on the land border between the north and south of Ireland in the post-Brexit era were firmly articulated by, among others, the Police Federation and the then chief constable of the PSNI, George Hamilton.

Measured suggestions about reviewing aspects of the protocol can always be examined, but Mr Johnson and the EU are unlikely to be influenced by those who wave flags and set fire to banners on the Shankill Road.

While police have taken a restrained approach to date, they have said that, in addition to issuing warnings, evidence is being examined and breaches of the relevant legislation will be considered.

Those who flout the law, and set out to instigate confrontations during a hugely sensitive period, must expect to face the consequences of their own actions.

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