Northern Ireland’s chief constable vowed not to quit after apologising for a police operation that saw a Troubles survivor arrested at a memorial event.
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne announced on Saturday night that one officer had been suspended and another repositioned following Friday’s incident on Belfast’s Ormeau Road.
The actions have been taken pending the outcome of a Police Ombudsman investigation into the events that unfolded at the site of a notorious loyalist massacre when officers intervened at an anniversary ceremony amid suspicions the public gathering breached coronavirus regulations.
Mark Sykes, who was shot several times in the 1992 massacre that claimed the lives of five people, was handcuffed and arrested in chaotic scenes captured on social media.
The incident was the latest in a series of controversies around the PSNI’s enforcement of Covid-19 rules in Northern Ireland.
They have faced criticism for not taking action when large crowds of mourners have gathered for funerals of former paramilitaries, while the ombudsman found officers acted in a discriminatory way in handing out fines to Black Lives Matters protestors last summer.
Earlier this week, Mr Byrne was again facing scrutiny after officers did not move in to make arrests when a large crowd of masked men congregated in east Belfast in an apparent paramilitary show of strength.
After announcing the action against the two inexperienced officers, both of whom only joined the PSNI last July, the chief constable was asked whether he had considered his own position.
He said he knew that was the “question on everybody’s lips”, but he insisted he was going nowhere.
“I’m not a quitter, I took this job with my eyes open, determined to invest my time, my capital, working with a top team to deliver on my promise, which was visible, accessible and responsive community policing,” he said.
“I don’t pretend this isn’t a difficult week. But actually, if I quit now, it would just leave the same set of problems for whoever stood in my shoes. This is about leadership, it’s about calm heads and direction while I work with a top team to move people out of the place we find ourselves in and deliver on the promises that I’ve made.”
Statement from the Chief Constable Simon Byrne on the events of the Ormeau Road, Friday 5 February. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/GKtngnibCd
— Police Service NI (@PoliceServiceNI) February 6, 2021
Five people, including a 15-year-old boy, were murdered and several others injured in February 1992 when Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) opened fire in the Sean Graham bookmakers shop on the Ormeau Road in February 1992.
Mr Byrne apologised to all those who were present at Friday’s 29th anniversary event or had been affected by what they had seen on social media.
He insisted police did not attempt to stop the commemoration.
“That said, we have carefully had the opportunity today to review the totality of the incident, that led to the events we’ve seen on social media,” he said.
“Having looked at the totality of what we have seen on the police body-worn video, which records things that have not yet been seen in the public domain, we recognise that the events that have taken place do not reflect the values of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
“Consequently, we have taken the decision this evening to suspend one of the officers involved and to reposition a second officer whilst the ombudsman completes her investigations and is able to make her own determinations.”
He added: “Firstly I would like to apologise to those people that were affected in the Ormeau Road yesterday by our actions, in terms of what they saw and what they heard.
“And secondly to people that have been concerned and upset by what has been shown on social media.
“I apologise for what has happened and I will be writing this evening to legal representatives for those families that were involved in the original atrocity in 1992 to offer to meet those families, to listen to their concerns and to apologise.
“I apologise for what has happened and I will be writing this evening to legal representatives for those families that were involved in the original atrocity in 1992 to offer to meet those families, to listen to their concerns and to apologise.”
Mark Sykes is released – his solicitor Niall Murphy speaks pic.twitter.com/DCF5CZyGmo
— Relatives 4 Justice (@RelsForJustice) February 5, 2021
The chief constable said he was unable to de-arrest Mr Sykes as the matter now rested with prosecutors to decide whether prosecution was appropriate.
Mr Sykes has condemned his arrest, which was on suspicion of disorderly behaviour.
“The only thing I had in my hands was flowers, that my three-year-old granddaughter had lain at her uncle’s memorial,” he said.
Police have said officers initially took action after witnessing a crowd of “between 30 to 40” attending an event.
Public gatherings of more than six people are currently prevented under Covid-19 lockdown regulations in Northern Ireland.
The Police Ombudsman continues to face calls from bereaved relatives of the bookmakers shop attack to publish a delayed investigation report into the 1992 murders, amid allegations of state collusion.
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald dismissed Mr Byrne’s comments on Saturday night as “token gestures”.
She tweeted: “The damage done to public confidence in policing will not be undone by a statement by @ChiefConPSNI or by token gesture responses.
“The disrespect and mistreatment of victims of British state collusion and their families is now on full ugly display. Again.”
The DUP questioned the pace of the action taken against the officers, describing it as “uncharacteristically swift”.
The party’s Policing Board members said: “The apology by the Chief Constable, the redeployment of one officer and the suspension of another officer within 24 hours of the Ormeau incident raises many questions.
“We cannot have trial by social media and we cannot have rushed announcements to suit some political agenda. We would have thought the proper course of action would have been to await the outcome of the Ombudsman Inquiry.
“In addition, the Chief Constable needs to explain why two relatively inexperienced officers were despatched to this scene and if any other senior officers were present. The PSNI has enough trouble recruiting without a perception that officers have been scapegoated.”