G8 10 years on: The Battle Of Princes Street

A masked protester clashes with a police officer on Princes Street. Picture: AP
A masked protester clashes with a police officer on Princes Street. Picture: AP
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THE Carnival of Fun turned into a nightmare as violence erupted between anarchist protesters and police at city centre march, writes Kaye Nicolson

The world was watching Edinburgh and the Capital shone in the July sunshine.

The massive and peaceful Make Poverty History March ahead of the G8 summit had galvanised hundreds of thousands in a common popular cause with positive pictures beamed across the globe.

Many you would think could afford themselves a pat on the back.

But there was no sense of celebration in the Fettes police HQ – senior officers knew there biggest challenge was yet to come.

“We always knew that Monday (July 4) had been presented as a carnival of fun and in that we always knew it was intended as a day to be used by those known as so-called anarchists to make their impact in their own style,” remembers Tom Halpin, former Lothian assistant chief constable.

“It’s easy to be seduced by someone dressed as a clown or fairy for a picture, but when the reality is that smiling face is accompanied by a kick in the ankle, you need a robust policing operation to maintain public safety using lawful tactics.”

So it turned out.

The events of that day could not have been in starker contrast to the atmosphere on the march 48 hours before.

The city centre descended into chaos as anarchists, who had travelled from across Europe to take part in the so-called Carnival of Full Enjoyment, launched a series of running clashes against riot officers and Princes Street was closed to traffic.

Memorial benches were turned into battering rams while police battled to contain the violent demonstrations.

From early morning, police had been ready to foil activists who attempted to chain up pumps at petrol stations on Comiston Road and Calder Road.

But the main drama began at around lunchtime, after the carnival started to weave down Shandwick Place while drums beat to a samba rhythm.

Police – who had been drafted in from all over the UK to bolster the local resources – forced the colourful parade down Torphichen Street and away from the financial district they had been heading for.

The mood turned sour when the procession was trapped in Canning Street, after police cornered them from both sides of the narrow lane.

Working for the Evening News, Toby Williams was among the photographers who came close to the action across the city centre.

“There was one kid who was about 14 years old – he wasn’t throwing cobbles at the police shields, he was underarming them to take out their shins,” he says.

Tensions surged as the protesters attempted to break through police lines – climbing over parked vehicles and even attempting to push cars into police.

And while the drama was unfolding in the West End, further trouble was brewing on Princes Street, led by masked hardline anarchists, including those from the notorious La Basta movement, all dressed in black.

Hundreds of protesters marched down Frederick Street on to Princes Street – which had been closed to traffic and overrun with more than 40 police vans – and missiles were thrown at police mounted on horses.

They were later forced into Princes Street Gardens, where the chaos continued, with bins and glass bottles thrown at officers.

Police fought to contain the angry crowds in Torphichen Street and Canning Street, while further mobs were gathering on Rose Street and South St Andrew Street.

Around 21 people – including four officers – were treated for minor injuries, with some being taken to hospital. Police arrested more than 100 protesters that day; the vast majority were charged with public order offences.

The ugly events – which had been bolstered by young teenagers getting involved into the evening – eventually calmed down at around 10pm.

Mr Halpin says he is still proud of how the 1000 officers and additional support staff rose to the challenge.

“As we look back, there were wonderful events on the Make Poverty History event which had taken place a couple of days earlier.

“We all shared a common aim – wanted to welcome and facilitate peaceful protests.”

Despite extensive planning, he says, there was no escaping the challenge which loomed on July 4.

“This is a wonderful city with a great legacy of supporting causes. That weekend had gone very well and everybody felt very proud of Edinburgh in that sense. That was the over-riding sense.

“We had planned and worked hard to make sure that the police operation in Edinburgh was prepared and ready to meet that challenge, while maintaining the policing style of which we have been very proud.”

He acknowledges that the day itself was “very, very difficult” – but insists that he was proud of how it was handled.

The following day, police mounted a huge, successful operation to stop anarchists blockading the Capital.

Officers surrounded the Sheraton Grand Hotel on Lothian Road, where delegates for the G8 summit had been staying, while dozens of lorries, buses and vans were stopped and searched by officers before they travelled over the Forth Road Bridge.

Mr Halpin says: “The work we had done, with the business communities for example, enabled business to continue trading and for major corporate businesses to continue and operate with our support and advice.

“To this day I firmly believe that the police operation maintained its training, professionalism and its focus on the needs of the community.

“I was confident enough on the day to say it was a very successful policing operation that maintained the public order overwhelmingly.”

Mr Halpin, who is now chief executive of community justice organisation Sacro, adds: “The legacy of continuing support for that policing operation from the business community continues to this day.”

As he reflects on the events of July 2005, he recalls the support from civic colleagues had been unwavering, and says he continued to be proud of the police officers who were on duty that day, as well as those who had been working behind the scenes.

“The pride that I feel is for all the staff, police officers and support staff who committed for months to delivering a high-quality service.”

While there was criticism at the time that police had been heavy-handed, Mr Halpin insists that the tactics used were “very proportional” to those used by the protesters.

“A minority of them were intent on preventing lawful protest,” he says.

“They wanted their agenda and their style to protest and overwhelm the lawful protest.”

Officers – who had drawn support from colleagues in forces including the Metropolitan Police, Greater Manchester and Cumbria – sought to “minimise” the number of actual arrests, to “maintain support of the lawful protest”.

“This was major - one of the largest policing operations that the UK and Scotland had ever experienced.

“It was a very difficult operation on that day.”

And Mr Halpin says that lessons were learned following the dramatic scenes on the Capital’s streets.

“Every major event and policing operation throws up learning, and that’s part of planning and day to day briefings.

“The learning that came out of that was that no matter what we do locally, when you get an event on that scale, you willl always need mutual aid.”

Donald Anderson, who was council leader at the time of the G8 events, remembers most the sense of relief that the city, the police, and the council had risen and met the challenge.

He says: “We were relieved we got through the whole process ourselves without any massive difficulties.

“There were some police officers who were injured, and we lost a couple of park benches and a couple of hundred geraniums from Princes Street Gardens, but by and large, in terms of life and limb in the city, we got through it safely.”