Bobby Storey funeral among series of Covid-19 controversies involving PSNI

David Young, PA
·3-min read

The Police Service of Northern Ireland has never been far from controversy during the coronavirus pandemic.

The furore around the PSNI’s handling of the Bobby Storey funeral has prompted claims it has lost the confidence of the unionist community, with chief constable Simon Byrne resisting calls from DUP leader Arlene Foster to quit.

However, last month the PSNI service was facing similar claims from the republican community, after officers arrested a victim of a loyalist paramilitary atrocity during a commemoration event in south Belfast.

Sean Graham shooting
Mark Sykes at the memorial to those killed in the Sean Graham Bookmakers attack on 5 February 1992 (PA)

On that occasion, it was Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill claiming there was a crisis of confidence within nationalism about the PSNI.

While she stopped short of calling for his resignation following the arrest operation on the Ormeau Road, others did demand his head. Mr Byrne again stood firm.

Throughout the last 12 months, Mr Byrne has rejected any suggestion his officers have shown any section of Northern Ireland’s divided community preferential treatment.

“We’re here to police the whole of the country and do it well and do it impartially,” he said on Tuesday.

The police chief did apologise in February for the scenes that unfolded at the site of the Sean Graham’s bookmakers massacre when officers intervened at an anniversary ceremony amid suspicions that the public gathering breached coronavirus regulations.

One officer was suspended and another repositioned following the incident that saw Mark Sykes, who was shot several times in the 1992 outrage that claimed the lives of five people, handcuffed and arrested in chaotic scenes captured on social media.

Coronavirus – Tue Mar 30, 2021
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne (Liam McBurney/PA)

In making her claims of partial policing in February, Ms O’Neill cited another Covid-19 regulation incident involving claims of police inaction.

She contrasted the scenes on the Ormeau Road with police’s failure to make arrests when they encountered a gang of masked loyalists walking through a neighbour in east Belfast in an alleged show of strength.

While arrests and charges have subsequently followed that incident in Pitt Park off the Lower Newtownards Road, police did face criticism for failing to intervene at the time in the face of apparent rule breaches.

There have also been contentious Covid-19 policing incidents removed from Northern Ireland’s traditional orange/green prism.

In the most high profile, a police watchdog found the PSNI had been discriminatory in issuing Covid-19 fines to Black Lives Matter demonstrators.

Black Lives Matter protests
People take part in a Black Lives Matter protest rally in Custom House Square, Belfast (Rebecca Black/PA)

Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson said concerns around discriminatory police handling of the protests in June were justified.

Mrs Anderson said confidence in the PSNI among some within the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in the region had been severely damaged by the incidents.

In response to the report, Mr Byrne said he was sorry that relations with those minority communities had been damaged and vowed to “put things right”.

A number of protesters who were interviewed under caution following the event vowed to sue the PSNI to seek compensation for unlawful detention.

The demonstrators also called on police to rescind the fines handed out and repay the money.