A bad week for the PSNI’: How an arrest at a Belfast massacre memorial has put pressure on policing
‘A bad week for the PSNI’: How an arrest at a Belfast massacre memorial has put pressure on policing
NORTHERN IRELAND’S TOP police officer has admitted that there are questions over his position amid the fallout from the policing of a memorial event in Belfast.
A survivor of a 1992 loyalist gun attack on a betting shop on the Lower Ormeau Road was arrested at the memorial and subsequently released, with PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne subsequently apologising for the force’s conduct.
One officer has been suspended following the arrest and another has been reassigned.
NI Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was part of a Sinn Féin delegation that met the Chief Constable today.
Her party have been critical of what they call ‘double standards’ after no arrests were made at an apparent loyalist show of strength last week.
O’Neill has called the past week “a watershed moment for public confidence in policing”.
So how did we get to this point?
Sean Graham massacre
In February 1992, two loyalist gunmen from the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) opened fire into the Sean Graham bookmakers on the Lower Ormeau Road.
Five men, the youngest aged 15 and the oldest aged 66, were killed in the massacre and nine others were injured.
Emergency services said at the time that they had difficulty getting into the shop after the incident because there were so many people lying dead or wounded on the ground.
No one has ever been convicted in connection with the massacre and families have insisted that there is evidence of State collusion.
The PSNI previously apologised after one of the murder weapons was found in the Imperial War Museum in London. Families were told that the rifle had been officially “disposed of”.
The police force also previously apologised for not providing all the information available to a Police Ombudsman investigation into this and other atrocities.
On Friday, a wreath-laying ceremony was taking place at the site on the 29th anniversary of the massacre.
Police intervened citing concerns over potential breaches of Covid-19 regulations with officers saying they took action after witnessing a crowd of “between 30 to 40”.
Public gatherings of more than six people are currently prevented under Covid-19 lockdown regulations in Northern Ireland.
One of the men attending the memorial was Mark Sykes, who was shot several times in the 1992 attack.
Sykes was handcuffed and arrested in chaotic scenes that were captured on social media. He was subsequently released about two hours later.
The video footage from the scene showed relatives and friends of those who died becoming visibly upset by the police intervention.
Police have claimed that they were not attempting to stop the memorial.
In a statement they say officers approached individuals “as the event concluded” and that “a man was arrested for disorderly behaviour and resisting arrest”.
Mr Sykes’ lawyer Niall Murphy said: “Every year the victims and survivors gather in dignity to remember their loved ones and to say a short prayer.
“This year because of Covid restrictions it was restricted to the five families who maintained a dignified silence and left flowers down.
The police attended, for what reason I will never know, approached victims and survivors of an atrocity and commenced to harass, push and assault man, woman and child.
“The only disorderly behaviour that happened on the Ormeau Road today was by the police who had no right to be there and who have wreaked havoc on community relations both in the Ormeau Road and in the wider community,” he said.
In a statement on Saturday, the Chief Constable Byrne said that what happened at the incident “was not reflective of the values of the PSNI”.
The chief constable has said he is unable to de-arrest Mr Sykes as the matter now rests with prosecutors to decide whether prosecution is appropriate.
Byrne also said that the force has been “under increased scrutiny for its policing of the coronavirus restrictions”.
This is in reference to an incident in East Belfast where officers did not make any arrests when a large crowd of masked men congregated in an apparent loyalist paramilitary show of strength.
Footage of that incident from the Pitt Park area showed a group of dozens of masked men with PSNI officers also at the scene.
There has been criticism of the police response to the incident with former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt MLA telling a meeting of the NI Policing Board that police were “observing” the incident but did not intervene.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly MLA told the same meeting that the loyalist group forced the closure of a community centre and that their intention was to intimidate.
“The PSNI attended the scene while the UVF mob were still roaming the community and made minimal efforts to intervene. It has been reported that the mob were preparing to attack a home and instead of challenging those involved the PSNI merely shepherded the gang out of the area,” Kelly said.
In a statement, in response to the criticism, the PSNI said: “As soon as police became aware of an incident in the Pitt Park area of East Belfast yesterday afternoon we deployed resources.
We have launched an investigation and are currently reviewing evidence gathered at the time.
Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has however criticised what she has called “a double standard within the policing service”.
“There appears to be an ethos or culture that turns a blind eye to UDA, UVF thugs on the street, but at the same time a disproportionate attempt to target nationalist communities.”
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister accused the Chief Constable of “pandering and grovelling” to Sinn Féin because of his apology following the memorial.
“I think of all the people who should have the least to say about policing Covid regulations it is Michelle O’Neill,” he said, referencing the Bobby Storey funeral last July.
The PSNI has also faced criticism for the policing of other gatherings. The ombudsman found officers acted in a discriminatory way in handing out fines to Black Lives Matters protesters last summer.
A meeting between Sinn Fein and the PSNI leadership this afternoon has been described by O’Neill as “forthright” and “frank”.
O’Neill said it represents “a watershed moment for public confidence” in policing and she spoke of “unprecedented anger” over the arrest of Sykes.
“I told the Chief Constable that what happened is not the new beginning to policing that society and the community had been promised,” she said in a statement.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP has labelled it “a bad a bad week for the PSNI” but has called for calm.
“Enforcing the Covid-19 regulations is a difficult job, we all acknowledge that. But the striking inconsistency that allowed gangs of masked men to walk around East Belfast freely whereas those paying their respects on the anniversary of an atrocity were subject to physical confrontation and arrest cannot go unchallenged,” he said.
“It is difficult to watch the footage of the last week and not be angry. But that frustration with how the PSNI has managed events should be channelled through the police accountability structures. The New Beginning to Policing was hard won in Northern Ireland. We cannot allow the actions of a few to destabilise the progress we’ve made.”
– With reporting by Press Association