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The divisions that continue to plague institutionality in Northern Ireland

LYNDA WALKER looks at the background to present disarray in the Police Service of Northern Ireland

THE resignation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Simon Byrne this month was expected. According to the media his term of office as the PSNI’s most senior officer was marked by a series of damaging controversies.

The latest was the result of a judicial review over the suspension of one police officer and the repositioning of another.

A High Court judge said the actions were “unlawful” and quashed the measures — however the suspension of one police officer and the of repositioning of another had been lifted. In addition, the court said the chief constable “bent to political pressure” in the process.

The incident dates back to 2021 when the annual memorial event took place marking the 29th anniversary of a shooting in which loyalist paramilitaries killed five people and injured nine others at Sean Graham Bookmakers in Belfast in 1992.

The 2021 event was held while public gatherings were restricted under pandemic rules. Two police officers who were in the area came upon the commemorative gathering and concern arose as to whether those in “attendance were, or may have been, acting in breach of coronavirus restrictions.”

After the commemorative event closed, the officers approached Mark Sykes, one of the organisers, who was both a bereaved relative of the Sean Graham attack and himself a survivor of the attack (having been shot during it).

The 18,000-word judicial review reads like a drama script: “The police officers concerned are the first applicant (who first entered the ranks of the PSNI in late July 2020, around six months before the incident in question, and who was 26 years old at the time); and the second applicant (who has averred that he is a Catholic from the Republic of Ireland who joined the PSNI in March 2020).

“They commenced duty at 7am that morning and were in a police vehicle on patrol in Belfast. There had been no mention at their morning briefing, or in advance of the incident, about the commemorative event which was due to be held on the Ormeau Road that day. The first applicant said he was completely unaware that February 5 was an anniversary of a notorious attack on the Ormeau Road.”

Shortly after the event had finished and most of the participants had left, one of the organisers, Mr Sykes, was arrested on suspicion of disorderly behaviour, not giving his name as he thought they would know it anyway.

He was later released without charge. Not surprisingly Mr Sykes, was unco-operative with the police. An investigation in 2022 by the Police Ombudsman concluded that police engaged in “collusive behaviour” with the South Belfast UDA. Those suspected of involvement in the attack were police informers.

The judicial review makes reference to the fact that “one of the significant features of this case is that the incident occurred not long after another contentious incident in which a group of masked men had been seen together in the Pitt Park area of East Belfast but had not been approached by police, notwithstanding that this may also be thought to have prima facie indicated a breach of the coronavirus regulations and indeed potentially much more serious criminality.”

(In his affidavit, DCC Hamilton has explained that this was a “a UVF show of strength” the week before, during which a large number of masked men marched in East Belfast toward a building with apparent intent to threaten the occupants. He says that police presence prevented an attack, but police did not confront the crowd. It appears that that was an operational policing judgement made at the time as to how best to manage the threat of violence or disorder).

This aspect of the matter, giving rise to contentions of double-standards in policing, was undoubtedly to the fore in some of the discourse on social media in relation to the Ormeau Road incident.

For instance, on February 7, the deputy first minister tweeted that: “There appears to be a culture of double standards in the PSNI. A culture of turning a blind eye to UDA and UVF thugs, while targeting those laying flowers on the anniversary of loved ones. The PSNI must be held to account.”

The Irish News makes the point that when Byrne was appointed chief constable in 2019, “within months he raised eyebrows when he threatened to have the children of dissident republicans taken into state care.” He warned: “You (‘dissident’ republicans) carry on doing this and we will have your house, if you keep going we will have your car, we will have your kids, we will have your benefits and we will put you in jail.”

The Covid-19 pandemic threw up several disputes including the handing out of fines, (which were revoked) to people attending a Black Lives Matters protest in June 2020.

How the PSNI responded to the funeral of senior republican Bobby Story provoked unionist anger. Mr Byrne was back in the spotlight last month after it emerged that details of every PSNI staff member — 10,000 in total — had been revealed in error in response to a Freedom of Information request.

Another aspect of the case is the role of Sinn Fein (SF) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Though SF insist that they had no intention of withdrawing from the policing board, notes from the judicial review state: “DCC Hamilton has averred that, at this point, he was ‘aware the chief constable was informed by Sinn Fein that there was a risk support for policing would be withdrawn unless action was taken in respect of the officers’.”

The DUP demanded that the chief officer resign, making great capital of the idea that Sinn Fein was somehow involved. What is the DUP role in exposing police collusion?

The Police Federation of Northern Ireland brought the judicial review proceedings on behalf of two probationary constables. The High Court judge said the actions were “unlawful” and quashed the measures.

It seems pretty obvious that the two constables were left in the deep end and the conflict could have been avoided. The whole situation got out of hand resulting in further distrust of the police, disarray within the PSNI, sectarianism in the political community, and a cost of thousands of pounds regarding the judicial review.

Lynda Walker is a member of the Belfast and District Trades Union Council.


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