John McLellan: Do we need riot police on Bonfire Night?

Riot police deployed on Princes Street during the G8 summit protests
Riot police deployed on Princes Street during the G8 summit protests
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A hit-and-run murder bid, someone brandishing a crossbow, a knife incident, a domestic assault, and half a dozen calls about possible suicide attempts; this was all in one night’s work for the weekend team at Craigmillar police station.

All of these were obviously very difficult issues but, in volume terms at least, not especially unusual in such a densely populated area as North-East Edinburgh with deep social issues of which readers will be well aware.

But this is what officers were handling at the same time as a gang of up to 50 youths were turning Loganlea into a war zone on Bonfire Night. And, in case I get accused of exaggeration by Tommy Sheppard MP, a war zone was pretty much what the police officers faced when they had to deal with escalating trouble at the unofficial Guy Fawkes gathering outside Craigentinny Primary School.

The full picture of what went on is only now emerging, and according to local commanders their officers were deliberately targeted with a hail of fireworks and stones. Not being kitted out with riot gear, they had no choice but to withdraw for their own safety, as proved up at Drylaw where the inevitable happened and an officer was injured by a firework. It is only by luck she was the only one.

And they say it wasn’t just their officers who came under deliberate attack; on Portobello Promenade another 50-strong gathering aimed rockets deliberately at families enjoying barbecues and their own fireworks displays on the beach.

Officers found people carrying rucksacks full of fireworks, which is not an offence in itself even if they suspected they were ultimately going to be used as weapons. The suppliers were in all probability the same people involved in drug dealing and the illegal tobacco trade.

There was no sign trouble was going to escalate in the way it did, with the number of calls on the Friday and Saturday night into Craigmillar described as standard. But on the Sunday night that shot up to over 200, with around 60 about the trouble at Portobello and Loganlea alone.

The investigation is in full swing with detailed CCTV images now being studied, although just placing people on the streets in the area at the time does not prove any wrongdoing. There is a long way to go, especially as police have not been overwhelmed with the response to their call for information.

A review of the events involving all the agencies involved will start on Monday and from that should come a set of recommendations for how similar situations should be tackled in future. One option likely to be discussed will be whether riot police are put on standby next year, something not seen on Edinburgh streets since the G8 demonstrations in July 2005.

The public expectation is for the police to break up large disturbances and arrest those responsible, and most would have no problem with officers being properly equipped for their own protection. But it’s not straightforward because if they wade in with body armour and shields the evidence from elsewhere strongly suggests they would be met by further violence.

As a senior officer once said, if you go dressed for war you’ll get into a fight, but the response cannot just be a shrug of the shoulders.

A public meeting to discuss the disturbances has been organised by Ash Denham MSP at Craigentinny Community Centre on Loaning Road this Monday at 7pm.