Police urge councillors to help reduce number of protests

Divisional commanders have raised concerns over officers being taken away from other duties

NOTEBOOK by Bill Heaney

The marching season is upon us, God help us. The old Billy and Dan issues of Orangeism and Republicanism are about to be fought out on our streets.

Councillors have been urged to help reduce the number of protests across Scotland as police raise concerns over officers being taken away from other duties.

However, what is about to descend on the (mostly) good people of Dumbarton and Vale of Leven has nothing to do with protest.

It is entirely unacceptable, and it should be banned from taking place in the 21st century.

Mind you, Orange Walks are quite a spectacle – until they turn nasty with their can-carrying camp followers, many of them the worse for wear through drink and drugs, and they start fighting and spitting on the innocent voyeurs, the occasional priest, and antagonists who line the pavements.

You can put the kettle on that there will not be as much as a nod in the direction of social distancing come July 12. The cause is the virus here and now – sectarianism itself. It seems that, like the poor, it will always be with us.

The camp followers are not themselves alone without blame for what happens – and to a man and a woman they are also without shame.

This is not protesting for a worthwhile cause such as Black Lives Matter or a freeze on rents for social housing, demanding more public money to support the NHS and protection for asylum seekers and refugees.

Orangemen and women have a reputation for bending the knee to no one. No surrender.

They’re loud and proud and view themselves as Simply the Best and they want not just the western world but the whole world to know it.

Here’s tae us, wha’s like us, no’ many and they’re a’ deid.

Sectarianism is no stranger to the streets of Dumbarton and the Vale of Leven.

For the past 150 years and more our towns have been centres of periodic violence.

In October 1855, for example, a feud that had been simmering for months boiled over. Two hundreds shipwrights collected in the High Street and Artizan.

There was only one policeman in the Burgh at the time.

Two immigrant Irish labourers employed at Denny and Rankine’s shipyard were seized by the shipwrights and treated brutally.

One of them was dragged towards the yard furnace into which they tried to throw him.

A historian tells us: “The authorities interfered, but not before the man was burned badly about the face.

“Denny and Rankine after the disturbance dismissed all the Irishmen in their employment.”

According to the Free Press the trouble arose “from the pre-concerted plan of the Orange scoundrels of the place to give the Papists a milling, or in other words to drive the Catholic population out of the town and destroy their chapel.”

The Orangemen then assaulted every Catholic whom they could find. They wrecked their houses and smashed the windows of the chapel in College Street, the old Vennel, where the chapel was situated on a corner near Dumbarton Cross.

Catholic Irish immigrants from neighbouring towns came to rescue them.

There were many such incidents right across Scotland from Brora in the north to Berwick on Tweed in the deep south and the blame for starting them was not always down to the Orangemen.

For example, the Rev Alan Hassan, a minister of Bonhill Church in the 1960s, was a leading figure in the Grand Lodge of Scotland.

He was to head a local Orange Walk on a white horse, similar to the steed King William of Orange had ridden at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The horse was brought to Balloch and put out to grass the night before the Glorious Twelfth.

But scoundrels from the local community attacked the horse with a supply of green paint and are said to have painted hoops on the unfortunate creature rendering it unfit to take part in the Walk.

Given such history, is it any wonder that a letter from Police Scotland’s divisional commanders to local representatives says they have been dealing with an “increasingly crowded protest landscape” over the last few weeks.

While many of these demonstrations are said to be “legitimate”, broader solutions are needed to deal with the issues they raise.

Protests and counter-protests in George Square, Glasgow, required significant police resources when disorder broke out in there on June 17 when far-right loyalists disrupted an event supporting refugees.

The letter says: “Like so many people in Scotland, the chief constable [Iain Livingstone] and officers of Police Scotland were shocked about recent events in the United States. Racism in all its forms is disgraceful and unacceptable.

“Those events do not reflect our style of policing in Scotland and we continue to value the strong bond of trust with all our citizens and communities.”

It adds: “Although many of these protests are entirely legitimate, they pose significant challenges for policing, and public safety risks, given the ongoing pandemic in Scotland.

“Some of these protests have required a very significant resource deployment from Police Scotland and those are officers who are no longer available to deal with other policing demands.

“There is also no easy policing solution to issues and grievances which often have deeper roots in wider social and political issues, or which act as proxies for ingrained sectarianism.”

The letter urges councillors to take an active role, saying: “Given the risks to social cohesion posed by this increasingly crowded protest landscape, and the negative impact on the overall capacity of Police Scotland, we would ask that you would exert the influence that you have, as elected politicians, to seek broader solutions to this growing issue of concern to Police Scotland.”

Commenting on the letter, one senior officer said the current level of deployments is “unsustainable”.

Deputy chief constable Will Kerr said: “In the midst of responding to the coronavirus pandemic, we have also had to deploy significant numbers of officers to police the growing number of protests and counter-protests that we’ve seen in recent weeks.

“Those officers are being taken away from the communities they serve at a time when crime is starting to return to levels that are more in line with what we experienced before the lockdown.

“This is unsustainable, but policing on its own can’t provide the answers to deep-rooted issues and we need the whole of civic Scotland to step forward into that space.”

Certainly, that solitary policeman in Dumbarton when trouble broke out in 1855 would not have much of an impact on demonstrations such as those being planned today.

But will they go ahead in future? Cllr Jonathan McColl, leader of the SNP administration on West Dunbartonshire Council, refuses to comment.

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