Police and politicians have called for calm following the controversial arrest of a Troubles survivor at a memorial event.
Mark Sykes, who was shot multiple times in the loyalist massacre at a betting shop in Belfast in 1992, was later released after Friday’s incident on the city’s Ormeau Road.
Angry exchanges unfolded at the wreath laying anniversary event for the five people killed in the Sean Graham bookmakers attack when police intervened amid suspicions the gathering breached lockdown rules.
The PSNI’s response tonight to the incident at a wreath laying for the anniversary of the Sean Graham’s Bookies Massacre is inadequate & insulting.
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) February 5, 2021
Mr Sykes has condemned his arrest.
“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 in a statement released by campaign group Relatives for Justice.
Five people, including a 15-year-old boy, were murdered and several others injured in February 1992 when Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) opened fire at the bookies.
Footage of angry exchanges involving officers and those attending Friday’s event have been posted online.
Police said officers 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.
Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman has launched an investigation into how the police operation was handled.
Statement from Chief Constable Simon Byrne pic.twitter.com/Y9cRsdlVJx
— Police Service NI (@PoliceServiceNI) February 5, 2021
Separately, the Ombudsman continues to face demands from bereaved relatives to publish a delayed investigation report into the 1992 murders, amid allegations of state collusion.
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne appealed for calm following Friday’s incident.
Mr Byrne said: “I fully recognise the sensitivities of this incident and just how difficult a day this would have already been for the families who lost loved ones in the atrocity.
“That should not be forgotten.
“We are acutely aware that this is the latest incident to raise concerns about the enforcement of coronavirus regulations and illustrates there are no easy answers,” he added.
His comments were echoed by Justice Minister Naomi Long.
She said it was always going to be a “painful and difficult day” for the survivors and the families of those murdered at Sean Graham’s bookmakers.
Mrs Long said funerals and memorials were particularly sensitive when it comes to enforcement of the coronavirus regulations, and she appealed for everyone to work together to get through these challenges during the pandemic.
“We now need calm and cool heads to prevail,” she said.
Mark Sykes is released – his solicitor Niall Murphy speaks pic.twitter.com/DCF5CZyGmo
— Relatives 4 Justice (@RelsForJustice) February 5, 2021
Mr Sykes contrasted the scenes on the Ormeau Road with the lack of arrests made by the police earlier in the week when a gang of masked men gathered in Pitt Park in east Belfast in an apparent loyalist paramilitary show of strength.
The attack survivor also made reference to a controversy six years ago when it emerged the PSNI had loaned a rifle used in the Sean Graham attack to the Imperial War Museum.
“When I asked police what they were doing and had they notebooks out at Pitt Park, I was told if I swore again I would be arrested,” he said.
“I said ‘this is a f***ing disgrace’ as I walked away. The police then grabbed me and handcuffed me.
“The cuffs were as tight as possible, behind my back. The handcuffs were dug in tightly to the bullet wounds I suffered 29 years ago to the day. On top of the insult of donating the weapon (used) to shoot me to a museum they have today literally rubbed the steel of their handcuffs as salt in my physical wounds.”
Mr Byrne said officers came across a group of between 30 and 40 people at the event on Friday and as it concluded, two officers approached a person to talk to him about a breach of the Health Protection Regulations.
“The situation quickly escalated and a man was arrested for disorderly behaviour and resisting arrest,” he said.
Mr Byrne said in the course of the incident a police officer sustained a minor injury to his face.
Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has described the PSNI’s response to the arrest of a Troubles victim at a anniversary event as “inadequate and insulting”.
“This standard of policing is unacceptable and I have requested an urgent meeting with the Chief Constable,” she said.