1 April 2016
WC: Stephen Martin, Assistant Chief Constable (ACC) Stephen Martin has joined me in the Talkback studio. He is the man, the police officer, who has overall command of policy and policing around all parades across Northern Ireland and as I say, there have been some very serious moments this week for the police: Claims of two-tier policing - it comes after the use of CS spray by a police officer during a Junior Orange Order parade on the Ormeau Road in Belfast on Tuesday. You'll remember yesterday the First Minister, Arlene Foster, said she did not believe there was two-tier policing going on here but said that the police need to get to the bottom of the issues that are causing concern. ACC Martin, welcome! Good Afternoon to you.
SM: Thank you for having me.
WC: How concerned are you about the current state of the relationship between the police and Loyalist and Unionist communities?
SM: Well obviously the sort of commentary we've seen in the last few days played out in both the mainstream media and political circles and in social media is of concern to us. Police services such as ours thrive on consent and civic consent of the population that it polices and whenever we receive criticism on the scale that we have had of course it's concerning to us. Yes.
WC: When the First Minister, Arlene Foster, requested a meeting with the Chief Constable around some of those issues – was that helpful for her to do that or did that stoke the sense that is out there amongst some people that there is actually two-tier policing going on?
SM: Well let me say at the outset there is no two-tier policing. In your introductory remarks you quite properly highlighted that I am what we refer to as the 'Goal Commander' but that means the overall police commander for parades in Northern Ireland. I've held that for about eighteen months now – so all of last year's parade season - bonfires, flags and indeed the commemorations that we've seen this year.
WC: (quips) So one of the easiest jobs in policing here.
SM: A difficult and challenging job...
WC: ...Yeah, I would imagine, yeah...
SM: ...absolutely – but a great professional responsibility at the same time. So the policing of the parades that we've seen in last week – so for example - Coalisland, Ardoyne, Derry on Easter Monday - that's down to me. I made those calls. I'm quite happy to have conversation with you today to outline the context and the circumstances which I faced and why I made my decisions.
WC: Well, let's talk about that. The policy...
SM: ...Well I want to say at the outset...
WC: ...Go ahead.
SM: ...that there is no two-tier policing. I apply the same consistent thinking and approach to all parades whether they come from the Republican part of our community or the Loyalist part of our community.
WC: Did you start out during this season of commemorations around 1916 with a policy decision about how you would police those commemorations even if there were people wearing masks and uniforms involved in them?
SM: Yeah, well I have set an overall strategy for the year and that is a reasonably substantial document that goes into some detail about the type of policing that I want for the year. The parades that mark the commemorations – I think we should say that between Good Friday and Easter Tuesday there were in excess of a hundred and forty separate events occurred across Northern Ireland – the vast majority of which were notified to the Parades Commission. The overwhelming majority of those passed off peacefully, lawfully, in the spirit of historical commemoration and were enjoyed by those who took part. There were a few parades that unfortunately caught the public eye. If we talk about Coalisland, that was a very topical one, that actually was a lawfully notified parade. So the organisers went to the Parades Commission, submitted their eleven bar one and got approval for that parade in Coalisland. There was a determination issued. The determination, amongst other things, said there should be no paramilitary dress. So I was left with a situation expecting there'd to be paramilitary dress and how would I deal with that. So the offence there is actually a breach of Parades Commission determination. There is no offence of looking like a paramilitary. There are offences under the Terrorism Act about showing support for proscribed organisations. To get a matter through the court to prove to the criminal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt we would need to be able to demonstrate a clear link between those people and a proscribed organisation. Various stated cases and court experiences have shown us that actually what you need is the name of the proscribed organisation on the uniforms. That was not the case in Coalisland.
WC: So you didn't regard these individuals as 'terrorists' parading on the streets of Coalisland as some people are alleging in text messages to us?
SM: Well what I am saying is that the offences under the Terrorism Act would be showing support for a proscribed organisation...
WC: ...And that evidence wasn't there...
SM: ...and you have to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt. It's a high threshold to meet in the court and our experience and stated cases have shown that there needs to be a very clear link between that uniform and a proscribed organisation...
WC: ...Nevertheless they...
SM: ...that would typically be the name of the organisation...
WC: ...Sure. But even without that they were in breach of the parade determinations...
SM: Well yes...
WC: ...The directions - they were in breach of that. Why did your officers not move in?
SM: Well what we're left with there then is a potential breach of a Parades Commission determination. That is a summary offence dealt with only in the Magistrates' Court – absolute maximum sentence would be six months imprisonment but all experience shows much more likely if you get them into court will be a fine. So it is a more minor offence in terms of the law. I accept it's distasteful. It's offensive to many people. Many people regard it as ugly scenes but in terms of the actual breach of the criminal law it is a summary offence.
So then I look at context. Context is everything in the law. Was it near an interface area? Was it near an area where it wouldn't be appreciated or it would be opposed? Had I lawfully notified protests? And the answer to all those questions was no. It was in a Republican area. It was lawfully notified. And I had the opportunity to record evidence and follow-up afterwards. There's plenty of precedent for that. There are many occasions when Loyal Order parades, for example, breach determinations – normally by playing music where they shouldn't play – so, for example, past Saint Matthew's or past Saint Patrick's - and I made the decision not to intervene there because I recognised that by intervening the risk of disorder and the events that could unfold are disproportionate compared to the benefit I would have accrued by intervening.
But let me say I do intervene at times. So for example, the Anti-Internment Parade last August – it was my call to stop that parade on the Oldpark Road/Rosapenna Street junction because I believed that the context there was such that if I didn't intervene that the risk of disorder and violence, if it was allowed to progress towards the city centre, was of such a scale that actually the positive thing to do to protect human rights was to stop that unlawful parade. I intervened in Loyal Order parades most noticeably in the Woodvale Road on the return parade on the Twelfth of July. So I could sit here and give you many examples where we made the decision, or I made the decision, to intervene because it's the right thing to do. But I can give you many examples where I don't. I record evidence and I follow-up afterwards.
WC: Alright. Now let me take you to the Ormeau Road – and we know what the police are saying about the Ormeau Road – this wasn't a policy decision. The police had to respond to an incident as it occurred in that situation and they made a decision, that is now being reviewed by the Police Ombudsman, we know all that. It's the perception, ACC Martin, it's the perception of it. It's the perception that masked men wearing paramilitary uniforms are allowed to march merrily through one area without any challenge by the police whilst Junior Orangemen on a parade are sprayed, that's the claim – I'm not saying that happened but that's the claim – are sprayed with CS gas, as some people have said – but it's CS spray - it's a liquid medium, it's not gas, but that's a differential approach to policing. That is the claim and that looks to many Loyalists like you approach their community differently.
SM: Well I want to say I don't approach their community differently. I want to hear the views of their community. I engage with many politicians on a regular basis. I have been, myself, to meet the Loyalist Community Council and to talk about issues relating to the policing of Loyalist working class areas. So I'm in listening mode when it comes to policing Loyalist areas. What we had in the parades in Coalisland and Derry – and I've taken some time to try and explain my thinking around the Coalisland parade – was actually where the police did take positive steps to gather evidence. We had several hundred police officers on duty in and around Coalisland on Sunday. We have lots of footage. We have the helicopter footage, we have hand-held footage from our officers on the ground, we've been trawling through social media footage and YouTube and we will be carrying out a very thorough follow-up to try and bring matters before the court in relation to suspected breaches of determination.
In relation to the Ormeau Road: That parade – there was no sense of any police pre-event deciding to intervene in that parade. In fact, we had only two police officers there whose job it was to facilitate the parade down the road at that point in time. We didn't anticipate any difficulty. We didn't want any difficulty. That parade in recent years has been very successful. But what occurred: A situation developed where a police officer believed that criminal damage was likely to occur and stepped in, dynamically, to try and prevent that. The police officer will obviously say that he was then subjected to violence and the threat of violence and took measures to protect themselves. Now I also understand that there will be another narrative out there – another story, another version of events from the band and from members of the Loyalist community so the proper place for this to be ventilated and investigated is with the Police Ombudsman and I believe that's where it should be.
WC: Meanwhile, it's become a political debate. You've a DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) Councillor from Ballymena quoted in the newspapers yesterday using social media to describe PSNI officers in that incident as 'boot boys' and even re-posting the image of the officer. A politician doing that!
SM: Yes. Well I think that is irresponsible. Police officers go out every day to protect this community. I have the job, as we've said, for policing parades. I can tell you that I police those in an impartial, consistent way. Yes, I have to make different decisions based on different contexts. Unfortunately we're a divided society where often it comes down that if I'm celebrating – you will condemn - and vice-versa. These are difficult decisions. I think the posting of the police officer's details on social media in Northern Ireland is reckless. It's dangerous. You asked earlier around the intervention of the First Minister. I think the First Minister's intervention has been helpful. I think it's quite appropriate for senior ministers to take an interest and to ask questions about policing. It's inappropriate, ever, to try and interfere with the operational independence of the Chief Constable. I don't believe that that line has been, in any way, approached. I think it has been, by and large, reasonably responsible for politicians but the example you gave was irresponsible.
WC: Do you believe that some politicians are using that incident for electoral purposes ahead of the Assembly elections?
SM: Well I don't think it would be helpful. I believe that we're at the start of a parade season and my job here today is to try and explain and give assurance to people that there's no two-tier approached to policing of these parades. It is the one person, me, who decides on the overall strategy. On the more controversial parades it's me who chairs the meetings. It's me who approves the tactics by the commanders on the ground and I am consistent and impartial. I don't think it would help me in trying to reduce the tension to start making comments around the election – I'll leave that for others. My job is to try and keep people safe, to try and reduce tension. We've a long parade season ahead of us. We have more commemorations to come. We've some difficult parades to come and my appeal is that people leave the Ormeau Road incident to the Police Ombudsman. We obviously very much regret that young children were affected by the effects of CS spray – that was never the intention. CS spray is used to protect officers who are subject to violence or the threat of violence. That is our view on why it was used but the Ombudsman will make a determination.
WC: Do you still believe it was appropriate to use it in that case? In that incident?
SM: You know, if the officers apprehended that they were fearing for their own safety then it would be appropriate. It was an open-air set of circumstances. Young children appeared to have been affected and we really regret that. And we are a learning organisation. We look forward to cooperating with the Police Ombudsman's investigation. We'll see what that brings forward and if it brings forward lessons for us to learn I can assure you we will learn those.
WC: The initial response from the police seems to suggest that young people, children, were not affected by the CS spray.
SM: Well I don't think we're in a position here to dispute that children seemed to have been affected by the effects of CS spray...
WC: ...But that's a change in position by the police – is it?
SM: Well we're of a view that the CS spray was directed to adults who were at that stage, the officer will say, engaging in violence towards him.
WC: So you seem to be moving to the position now that the spray may have contaminated the atmosphere, or something like that, and that might have been the indirect means by which some children were affected by it.
SM: Well I think that seems to be the case that the children would have been affected in a secondary way as opposed to have been targeted deliberately by the officers themselves.
WC: The other incident this week that has been used by some people making this argument for two-tier policing was the photograph that appeared again on social media, it was widely circulated, of a police officer in West Belfast who appeared to have his foot on the bottom rung of a ladder – in some of the photographs I've seen he doesn't have his foot on the ladder but it may be that there are other photographs where he does - with someone at the other end of the ladder putting an Irish tricolour onto a pub. Now we know what the police are saying – it was a health and safety concern by the police officer. He was concerned that the ladder was insecure – the person could have been injured. Would you accept in terms of the PR around all of this that that was a disaster for the police?
SM: Well I accept that people have different views. I don't ...
WC: ...How did you feel when you saw that image?
SM: Well look, I asked questions about it because I immediately realised that it would be open to interpretation and that it would probably receive some complaint. The officer was on fixed point that day - it was a pub near the Milltown Cemetery. A man came out to adjust a flag on private property. It was not, in any sense, an unlawful flag. And the police officer watching him doing it noticed the blustery conditions, noticed that he was up the ladder, thought it was precarious and steadied the ladder. And you know if they were putting up an Ulster flag or a Union flag in the Newtownards Road and an officer saw the same stuff I would expect the officer to do the same thing. If it was a proscribed organisation flag I would be expecting the officer to be intervening and interviewing the person under caution for offences. But it wasn't. It was an Irish national flag as I understand and that is not unlawful. The context: being flown on a pub in the Milltown Road area is not a breach of the criminal law in any way...
WC: ...Well what do you say to those? You say: Well there you have it – there's a cop helping people put up the Irish flag.
SM: Well my view is he wasn't helping him put it. He was actually trying to ensure that he didn't fall off the ladder and I would expect him to the same thing if that was in a Protestant/Loyalist area.
WC: Well you see how it all adds up in the minds of some people. You may consider it a conspiracy theory – this two-tier policing - but here's a police officer with his foot on the rung of a ladder and the Irish flag's going up - here's a Junior Orange Parade where CS spray is deployed – and here are masked men wearing paramilitary-style uniforms who merrily walk through a Republican area without any challenge. What does that look like to a Loyalist?
SM: Well look I'm not suggesting there's a conspiracy theory. I think we have a coming together of a variety of events and when you bring them all together means it's been a difficult and challenging week. The masked men marching through parades: I just ask people to think about that. If we were intervening – so Lurgan, for example, last Saturday – that was an unnotified parade. So again, even though they were dressed the way they were dressed - and we have footage and we'll be examining those - but at this moment in time we don't think it meets the threshold for showing support for a terrorist organisation because it doesn't name the organisation and the flags don't meet that either.
WC: And not even the connection with a 1916 commemoration does that? That doesn't get you across the line?
SM: No. No. No, absolutely not. So even though that looks ugly – and I 'get' that looks ugly – it looked ugly to me - there is no offence of dressing like a paramilitary. The offences are either under the Terrorism Act or breaches of determinations for taking part in an unnotified parade. So last Saturday in Lurgan – that was a breach of an unnotified parade. Now I've mentioned context is everything. We have gathered evidence but if we had went in to stop that parade it would be foreseeable that violence would have occurred. And if it is foreseeable then I have to satisfy myself that it is both necessary and proportional. And when you're dealing with summary offences – and I know that there's a greater likelihood that if we intervene the police will end up using force, that the likelihood of people getting hurt is increased, that the likelihood of police being subjected to violence is increased - then the appropriate thing to do – not just by my own decision making – but the appropriate thing to do in law, I would submit, is to record the evidence and follow-up afterwards. And I would also say this to people: If I was a dissident, if I was organising these parades, if I was trying to destabilise society, if I was trying to shatter the peace that we have fought so long and hard as a society and yearned for what would I want the police to do under those circumstances? I'll tell you what I would want: I would want the police to ride in there, gung-ho and bring out the shields and bring out the batons and confront those people and to create merry hell in that community. That's what I would want the police to do.
Well I am not in the business of handing victories to dissident groups. I am in the business of policing them; policing them firmly. Maghaberry is full of people on remand or serving sentences for terrorist offences that have occurred post-1998. There is nobody, nobody who will take greater delight in actually catching dissident people from these groups when they're out trying to murder or trying to carry out the offences but we have to do it sensibly and within the law. And I don't believe – I honestly don't believe - and I want your listeners to get it - I honestly don't believe that it would have been the right thing to do for the police to go into Lurgan last week in the full knowledge that that's exactly what they would have wanted and actually it was neither necessary or proportionate in the circumstances.
WC: Do you think it's unusual in a place like Northern Ireland that it is lawful to march in paramilitary-style uniform, wearing masks, behind flags in public? Do you think that's unusual?
SM: Well I don't know the ins and outs of the legislative framework...
WC: ...I know you're not a legislator - you don't make the law...
SM: ...In other countries but there's...
WC: Many people are texting saying it seems bizarre.
SM: Well there's no offense of wearing a mask in public.
WC: What is the morale like within the police at the minute?
SM: Well you know that there was a Federation survey last Autumn that suggested morale was in a difficult place. We have been working with the Federation since then to try and listen...
WC: ...And after this week? How are officers feeling this week?
SM: Well I think circumstances – you know, nobody likes to be the subject of public discourse. Nobody likes to be the subject of news bulletins and current affairs programmes and people ringing in and criticising you. The men and women I have the privilege of leading – I'm responsible for all local policing, all neighbourhood policing, day-to-day policing. The men and women I have the privilege of leading come into work every day to try to help people. I spoke to one of my officers who was injured last weekend – a lady with two children who was injured - hit in the head with a brick in the village of Crumlin - five staples to her head. A mother, a woman who puts on a uniform, comes into work every day to try and help people. And of course we don't like to be the subject of all this negativity and criticism but we're a police service – we are a police service in a difficult society. A society that has still many roads to travel in terms of healing and we accept that that is our lot and we are undeterred in terms of policing. Policing is a very noble endeavour. It's an inexact science. At times we will get things wrong. At times we will make misjudgments. But I honestly believe we get far, far more right in the interests of this society than we get wrong.
WC: Some of our listeners are texting to say that your comments about the strategy, the policy of not moving in officers because of your fear that it would turn into a riot situation essentially hands over authority on that road to mob rule. It's rewarding the threat of violence, again, in this society. That's what they're saying.
SM: Well I can understand why they say that but then why did I make the decision to stop a thousand Republicans in a Republican area last year when it was foreseeable that I would have had disorder? And I did have disorder and we had to deploy water cannon.
WC: Why did you?
SM: Because I believed in the context at the time it was an unlawful parade. It was clearly going to be in breach from the moment it started of the Parades Commission determination. I believed that was a substantive, substantial breach. There was substantial protest activity in the city centre. I believed that the further it got towards city centre the risk of tension, the risk of disorder, the risk of violence was such that it was necessary. It was proportional...
WC: ...So if enough Loyalists had come out to protest in Lurgan against that parade you might have intervened? The context was different?
SM: Well I police according to the context. The last thing I want to do is invite people to come out and protest. You know I think that is exceptionally unhelpful.
WC: Yeah, but as a policy decision we're saying if there is a large protest it changes the context and it might end up with a different decision to intervene and break up the parade.
SM: Well I think many things can affect the context: The area the involved – whether it's near an interface area – the support for it – the size of the parade – the types of offences that are likely to be broken – the history – the protest activity - the intelligence background - there is a whole range of things that affect my decision making but I want to reassure people - as difficult as sometimes images may seem, as difficult as sometimes it might be to get yourself into the position: Well why did he do that or why didn't he do that? I want to really reassure people – I work within the legal framework. I think about the context very carefully and I can assure you that I approach every set of circumstances with the same open mind and the same level of consistency.
WC: I hear what you're saying that different policing strategies in different areas don't add up to differential policing in a political sense. And that's the case with policing around the world. But you do have this PR problem. You do have an image problems within Loyalism and some parts of Unionism. What are you going to do to address those who have joined the dots in your judgment wrongly and have concluded that there is two-tier policing - that you don't respect one community as you do another community.
SM: Well look I did a Spotlight programme about a month ago and I was being accused of the very opposite thing. I was being accused of being soft on Loyalism. Today I'm being accused of being harsh on Loyalism. The context drives the sets of circumstances – that was in relation to not removing flags in the Clandeboye Estate in Bangor – again, flags falls within my area of responsibility - a very difficult, challenging set of circumstances. The context is everything in the law but my strategy - we don't have competing strategies we have the one strategy – and that's for the whole of Northern Ireland.
WC: But the tactics may be different.
SM: But the tactics can be different to deliver on that strategy. And I don't want get too complicated about that...
WC: ...No, I understand that. You know what? I think it's very helpful when you give us a little bit of your thinking on this so that people can see how you came to the decisions you came to. We don't often get that. And it may be helpful for people making their own mind up about what happened. But even if they do make their mind up about what happened you still have a problem in community policing, don't you? And you can acknowledge that - within Loyalism, within some sections of Unionism you have a problem now.
SM: Well I think the last few days have been unhelpful and I want to do what I can to take the tensions away.
WC: So what are you going to do to change that perception?
SM: Well first of all, obviously, coming on here and talking to you is a deliberate attempt to try and start and explain the circumstances around my decision making in Lurgan and Coalisland and Ardoyne and up in Doire on Easter Monday. My colleagues, some of my commanders from Belfast, are, as we speak, meeting Councillors in the City Hall. There are further meetings with other community representatives today. We are in listening mode. It does not assist us in any way to be in a form of unhelpful, unnecessary tension with any section of the community. We are a divided society. You know, the divisions are still clear. There are more peace walls now than there were in 1998. We are still very much in transition – we haven't transitioned. So the police service in the middle of that are, at times, going to fall foul of, as you call it, PR issues within one community or the other.
WC: And it's part of it – it's part of the game, isn't it?
SM: Well it comes with the territory. I certainly wouldn't see it as a game but it comes with the territory and it is my job to do what I can while still maintaining the rule of law, while still keeping people safe, doing our duty, doing our job, what we're mandated under legislation to do but to try and think about the 'how' of policing. We do talk about the what and how. The what can be very clear in certain circumstances. The how you go about it is actually the much more challenging role. I've said that I have been to see the Loyalist Community Council. You know, I'm very happy to go back to that group to address these issues and discuss them and to think about things like flags. And we're coming into the parade season - flags are going to start going up again - we're going to have those issues - we're going to have issues with bonfires – we know that as we sit here and those things can create tensions.
WC: And I suspect that you're particularly concerned, I'm not putting words in your mouth, but you're particularly concerned about the next few weeks – the next five weeks – leading up to an Assembly election. If Mark Lindsay of the Police Federation is correct that some politicians are using all of this as a political football for electoral purposes you may share his concern that we could have a difficult few weeks ahead for the police.
SM: Well Mark Lindsay's made his comments and I'm sure they've landed with politicians. I don't think I need to build upon those. My job is to encourage politicians. I want the support of politicians for local policing. I'm not coming on here to criticise or condemn them. They have a difficult job to do as well – to represent the interests of their constituents but people need to own their words. I need to own the words that I am using in this interview today while others needs to own their words. I think the example you gave earlier on that I referred to as being irresponsible was highly inappropriate. And Northern Ireland has shown that words can often lead to actions and those actions can be violent and I think putting a police officer's personal details on social media was reckless in the extreme and potentially very dangerous. Obviously we're stepping in now as an organisation to support our colleague and to support his family but that was really unnecessary and extremely unhelpful and it should not and must not happen again.
WC: Thank you very much, Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin.