Policing Board committed to addressing ‘challenges’ with NI police chief

David Young, PA
·3-min read

Members of a police oversight body in Northern Ireland have stated a joint commitment to work with the region’s chief constable to address challenges arising from policing the pandemic.

The agreed statement from members of the Policing Board came after Simon Byrne fielded their questions for more than two hours on a controversial incident in Belfast when a Troubles survivor was arrested after an atrocity commemoration.

The Police Ombudsman watchdog has initiated an investigation into how police handled the event on the Ormeau Road last Friday.

One officer has been suspended from duty and another repositioned after angry scenes unfolded when they approached some of the attendees to highlight potential coronavirus breaches in relation to the size of the gathering.

Sean Graham shooting
Mark Sykes stands at the memorial to those killed at the Sean Graham bookmakers shop (Liam McBurney/PA)

The event was commemorating the 1992 loyalist murder of five people at the Sean Graham bookmakers shop.

Mark Sykes, who was shot multiple times in that attack, was arrested during the commemoration.

Mr Sykes, who was detained on suspicion of disorderly behaviour and later released, has admitted swearing at an officer.

Mr Byrne has apologised for how the police handled the incident, claiming the officers involved fell below the expected standards of the PSNI.

The controversy has sparked a political row amid claims from republicans of police discrimination against nationalist communities and counterclaims from unionists that the officers involved have not been afforded due process.

Despite the fallout, unionist and nationalist political members of the Policing Board did reach a degree of consensus on Thursday as they discussed how to work with the police to address issues that have arisen going forward.

Mr Byrne and Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton briefed a scheduled meeting of the board’s performance committee on the Ormeau Road event and other recent contentious incidents related to the enforcement of Covid-19 regulations. All board members were invited to attend.

Coronavirus
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne has faced criticism for how his service has enforced Covid-19 regulations (Liam McBurney/PA)

Afterwards a statement agreed by all members was issued by Policing Board chair Doug Garrett which said: “Discussion focused on issues relevant to the incident on 5 February and around wider concerns from recent events.

“With the matter under investigation by the Police Ombudsman, the Board is now restricted in public comment on the incident.

“That said, board members are agreed that the policing of Covid-19 regulations has proven to be challenging.

“All members recognise the environment that policing has had to operate in, and the impact real time policing incidents have had on community views, perceptions and overall morale within the service itself.

“The different perspectives and views around policing style, approach and community relationships will need further consideration by the board.

“However, there remains a consensus and commitment from all of our board members to work with the Chief Constable as we move forward in dealing with the issues.”

On Wednesday, the Police Ombudsman told the police not to make any further public comment on the case while its investigation was proceeding.

Acknowledging that constraint, Mr Byrne issued a statement after the Policing Board meeting describing the exchanges as “constructive”.

“Regarding the meeting, I welcome the recognition from the board as our accountability body that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is currently operating in a very challenging and difficult environment,” he said.

“I further welcome the commitment from the board to work with me to address the challenges the police face, not least the potential for a reduction in police officer numbers following our draft budget allocation for 2021-2022.

“I remain strongly committed to enhancing both community policing and confidence in the service. I will continue to engage with a wide range of stakeholders over the coming weeks and I will provide updates to the board on progress on a monthly basis.”