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26 August 2010

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Operation Exposure

THE respected British human rights lawyer, Michael Mansfield, speaking on the BBC Radio Foyle lunchtime programme, has made the point that, in keeping with the general principle of protecting the community, there must always be respect for natural justice.
He was being interviewed in the context of what the PSNI in Derry has called ‘Operation Exposure’, where images of (mainly young) people have been printed in newspapers and the public asked to identify them with a view to prosecution. The PSNI has taken the matter a step further by delivering leaflets bearing images of what appear to be very young children, into homes in selected nationalists areas of the city.
Whatever about the presumption of innocence of those whose photographs are now being put through our letterboxes, the PSNI explanation is that these young people have been engaged in sectarian interface violence and they need the help of the public in identifying them.
To my knowledge, nowhere else on this island – nor indeed in England, Scotland or Wales – have police forces engaged in such an exercise. So why has Derry been singled out? The city can hardly be described as a hotbed of sectarianism or the racist capital of the North. Indeed, if it was any of those things, it would hardly have won the City of Culture Award 2013, an award that in itself is as controversial as Operation Exposure.
Leaving aside the history of institutionalised sectarianism in the Six Counties (and its twin evil of racism), statistics prove that Derry is the least sectarian or racist city in the North.
One wonders if Operation Exposure is really an attempt by the PSNI to deter young people from what most citizens believe is anti-social behaviour rather than sectarian interface violence, or does this latest police initiative have a more sinister agenda
The PSNI have claimed they do not know the identity of the children in the leaflets. A strange claim indeed since the city is almost entirely covered by CCTV – the source of the images on the PSNI leaflets. The interface area around the Fountain Estate, a unionist enclave beside Derry’s Walls, is dotted with numerous CCTV cameras focused almost exclusively on the Bogside, which makes one wonder that with all this electronic equipment in place, as well as a raft of legislation and a police service equipped with the latest weaponry and sophisticated surveillance, why they are unable to deal with a handful of children intent on annoying the residents of the adjacent senior citizens’ home so that they can be seen on YouTube.
The recent riots in the Ardoyne involving many young people were brought to an end when the community came on to the streets and challenged those inciting the young people to riot. Derry enjoyed one of its most peaceful days during the annual coat-trailing exercise by the loyal orders on the August 12th. This was due in no small measure to the Gasyard Féile organisation and all the other community groups in the nationalists areas.
While the community accepts that the police have a responsibility to protect the people, it cannot be done by violating the rights of children put at risk by the publication of images.
If the intention by the PSNI is to criminalise this generation of children in the same manner as the past 40 years, it will not work.
At the end of the day, it is the community who will be the dispenser of natural justice in a peaceful and constructive environment.

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