Policing in ‘cloud-cuckoo-land’
Policing in ‘cloud-cuckoo-land’

A heavy-handed series of arrest operations against families of prominent republicans backfired significantly on the PSNI this week as public opinion turned against them.

About 200 uniformed PSNI members and hundreds of support staff were involved in the raids which spanned three counties.

Seven searches were carried out at homes in Coalisland, Gulladuff, Bellaghy and Ballyronan as well as McNally’s well-known pub in Toomebridge on the main Belfast to Derry road. McNally’s Inn is run by the family of former Sinn Fein councillor Francie McNally.

In Coalisland, a car and items including clothing, mobile phones and computers were removed. Five men, aged between 22 and 46, were arrested and questioned at Antrim interrogation centre overnight.

Kerr was the first member of the Crown forces to die in the conflict in the North in over two years. His death led to a major media campaign against the various breakaway IRA groups and involved the GAA sports organisation and other government-funded bodies.

Amid a huge outcry among the nationalist community over the raids, PSNI detective Raymond Murray said his force were determined to “pursue every possible line of inquiry”.

“The investigation is progressing and police have been encouraged by the support and assistance which has been forthcoming from across the community,” he declared.

There was also a strong statement in support of the PSNI by Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

“We have to continue to support police in their investigations of any of those actions which taken the lives of any of our citizens - including those members of the police service,” he said.

McGuinness spoke out against what he called “the disgraceful ongoing activities of those people that believe the use of guns and bombs brings solutions to problems”.

He declared that such people were “living in cloud cuckoo land” and added: “The sooner these people go away and recognise, not only are they not making a contribution to making life better for our people, they’re actually damaging it.”

According to Mr McGuinness, dissident activity “is a threat, but shouldn’t be overrated”.

He said: “All of us involved in the political process know there are people out there in the echelons of the dissidents, who are opposed to and want to damage the peace process.”

However, it quickly emerged that the arrests were speculative at best. The five men arrested were quickly released as public anger mounted.

South Derry Sinn Fein councillor Peter Bateson criticised the way the search in Toomebridge was conducted. Throughout the day police dressed in white forensic suits moved in and out of McNally’s Inn.

Councillor Bateson said the PSNI had refused to allow a family member to be present during the operations and pointed out that this breached normal search procedures. At one stage, the PSNI searched in nearby ditches.

Mr Bateson also criticised the way the media were given advance information about the search, and suggested that the families’ name had been blackened by the raids.

The entire village of Gulladuff, between Bellaghy and Maghera, was described by residents as looking like a crime scene after the PSNI moved in at around 7am in the morning, while there was a simultaneous rude awakening for residents of the sleepy lakeshore area north of nearby Ballyronan.

However, the arrest of a 22-year-old man in a staunchly republican area of Coalisland in County Tyrone provoked the most anger.

Scores of PSNI and a half-dozen Land Rovers sealed off the property as forensic-suited teams marched in and out of the house throughout the day. The family of the arrested man were forced to spend the day at a neighbour’s house.

Sinn Fein councillor Padraig Quinn said of the arrested man, who was later released: “I know him personally and know his family and they have no connection to dissident republicans.

“It amounts to nothing more than harassment.

“I think it is ironic when we are being told there’s limited resources to combat antisocial behaviour yet there are so many police available to raid a home.”

Sinn Féin Assembly member Francie Molloy described the PSNI operation as “heavy handed and reminiscent of the bad old days”.

“I think it has damaged the relations between police and the community in this area severely and it will take some time to recover that.”

It is thought the raids may have been a PSNI ‘show of strength’ to deflect public attention from the plight of republican prisoner Brendan Lillis. Asked if they might have been a media stunt, Mr Molloy said: “It did seem like a PR operation.”

The public backlash over the operation provoked an unusual u-turn by Minister McGuinness. Reversing his initial support, he criticised the investigation and questioned in particular the arrest of the young man in Coalisland.

He warned that the PSNI will have to face the “widespread anger” from the republican community.

“I have been in contact with the PSNI at the top level to register my dissatisfaction and annoyance at the operation in Coalisland,” he said.

“Nobody who knows this young man and his family are in any doubt that he has no link whatsoever to the murder of Ronan Kerr.

“The nature of the operation has caused widespread anger in the local community. That is a reality the PSNI will now have to face.”

Mr McGuinness said the arrest featured prominently in the media and pointed out that the individual in question was in the USA at the time of that murder “and was in no way involved in it”.

He added: “People are in no doubt where I stand in relation to the killers of Ronan Kerr. I believe that the PSNI have a duty to properly investigate this murder.

“However the arrest and release of this young man raises very serious questions about the quality of the current PSNI investigation.

“Bad policing operations in republican communities will do nothing to bring his killers to justice. Indeed if anything the opposite is the case.”

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© 2011 Irish Republican News