By Jamie Bryson– Editor@UnionistVoice.com
The ongoing controversy generated by nationalists in relation to the proliferation of flags, banners, boards and posters in support of members of our armed forces has been in the news in recent days.
This show of support has grown organically within large sections of the unionist and loyalist community and is primarily born out of a frustration at the one sided nature of legacy investigations and the rewriting of the past which casts the IRA as ‘freedom fighters’, and loyalists and state forces as ‘murder gangs’.
The armed forces banners controversy prompted a PSNI statement issued in the name of ACC Mark Hamilton which appears to try and walk somewhat of a middle path in the course of trying to please everyone, which resulted in ultimately pleasing no one.
I should say from the outset that to be fair I do not believe this is a matter the PSNI want to be dragged into. They evidently do not want to become the ‘flag/banner police’ and find themselves caught in some no-mans land between the civil and criminal law by setting unworkable precedents. However given the PSNI have issued a public statement, it should be rather more clearly thought out.
Despite making clear the impugned banners are not themselves illegal, ACC Hamilton went on to say, inter-alia;
“Police will support the removal of banners by those who have responsibility for a structure on which the item is displayed…”
This is a rather absurd proposition. I suppose that is not surprising given you would imagine the statement was written by the PSNI legal department who have shown themselves to be legally illiterate.
The statement does not even simply commit to aiding statutory agencies, but rather blandly asserts the PSNI will support the removal of banners if those with responsibility for the structure request it. The PSNI set no test to be applied if such a request were to be made; they have simply committed- by use of the word “will”- to providing support on the solitary basis that “those with responsibility for the structure” request it.
If that is the approach the PSNI are going to take- and they do not even confine the commitment to provide support to statutory agencies- then this must apply to all walks of life, not merely banners. The law must be applied consistently. So, if, for example, a neighbour parks their car on an adjacent home owners land and this home owner- as the person with responsibility for their own driveway- requests the PSNI send a TSG unit around to support the forcible removal of the vehicle, will the PSNI provide such support? If not, then their statement on banners is meaningless and/or horrendously constructed.
Alternatively, if indeed the PSNI would stand over the logic of their own promise in ACC Hamilton’s statement then it is not difficult to see the preposterous position the PSNI are creating.
If the PSNI are going to commit themselves to intervening in every civil dispute between land-owners and third-parties relating to flags or the alteration of street furniture then one would imagine their budget for the year would be used up relatively quickly. We have civil law for a reason; it is not the responsibility of the PSNI, and nor should potential civil wrongs be converted into criminal wrongs based merely upon political convenience.
Beyond all of the aforementioned, could you imagine the optics if the PSNI were to wade in a tear down banners in support of veterans, especially in circumstances whereby the RUC equally find themselves in the firing line when in comes to the strategy of nationalist legacy activists. One would imagine such action would not only alienate the PSNI, further, from large sections of the PUL community but would most likely be seen as an abomination in the eyes of those who served in the RUC.
On BBC Nolan I debated this broad issue with Claire Hanna of the SDLP. When it comes to unionist cultural expression, and especially flags, it appears that Mrs Hanna is afflicted with an uncontrollable rage around the June/July period each year.
I suppose the obvious point to make is the lunacy of the SDLP having the brass neck to complain about any banners. This is the party that supported naming a children’s play-park after IRA terrorist Raymond McCreesh.
This time it is banners in support of our armed forces that has triggered Mrs Hanna and number of other nationalist politicians and activists.
The test applied by Claire Hanna, and presumably other nationalist activists, is that altering or placing anything on street furniture without permission should be criminalised. The test therefore would be whether permission has, or has not, been granted. Of course, what they really mean is they want any displays to which they object criminalised, but would naturally want a blind eye turned to anything that promotes causes which they support.
I asked Claire Hanna whether she wanted those who have erected anti-Brexit boards and posters to be similarly criminalised. I didn’t receive an answer.
Let us take one other example- often the kerbstones on union street are painted in Rainbow colours as part of the political campaign for same sex marriage. This is done without the permission of the land-owner. I take no real issue with this decoration; it is not something that I personally support, but it is not something I would want to see criminalised.
However if we take the ‘has permission been granted’ test applied by those demanding policing action in relation to the armed forces banners, then those persons cannot seek the law to be interpreted one way in relation to banners they subjectively find offensive, but simultaneously apply a different interpretation of the law in relation to placing anything on, or the alteration of, street furniture when it comes to persons showing support for causes they agree with.
So if Claire Hanna really wants the criminalisation of anyone that alters street furniture or affixes decorations or banners without permission, then by her own logic she would seek the prosecution of those LGBT campaigners that painted the kerbstones in Union street.
The interpretation of the law that persons want to see applied in relation to their enemies, often ends up as the precedent for the targeting of their friends.