An egregiously insensitive example of PSNI harassment has led to a surge in nationalist support for disbandment of the hated police force.
A small number of survivors and families of victims of an infamous loyalist atrocity were set upon last week as they gathered in a socially distanced manner to lay flowers on the memorial site where the killings took place, on Belfast’s Lower Ormeau Road.
As the commemoration was getting underway, one survivor was singled out for a heavy-handed arrest –– on the basis he had used bad language on two occasions. Others, including relatives of those who died, were shoved and harassed, all on the pretext of implementing coronavirus regulations.
Five people, including a 15-year-old boy, were murdered in 1992 and several others injured when the Ulster Freedom Fighters, a loyalist death squad, opened fire inside the Sean Graham bookmakers shop.
The attack was carried out with a weapon provided the police, then known as the RUC. The assault rifle used in the attack was later discovered on display in the Imperial War Museum in London.
Just months after the attack, members of the Orange Order notoriously taunted nationalists by holding up five fingers as they passed the shop during one of their sectarian parades.
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill said there was a “nationalist crisis of confidence in policing” following last Friday’s operation against the relatives and victims, which she said had been a “watershed moment”.
The crisis has erupted after an intensification in a long-running campaign of PSNI harassment against the nationalist community. Scores of violent raids and searches have taken place against republicans over the past year, mostly unreported by the mainstream media. In recent months, this has extended to almost any nationalist gathering, including a violent attack on a funeral in Belfast just 24 hours before the Ormeau Road incident last week.
However, the use of police oppression against a commemoration of an atrocity in which the police (then the RUC) is widely believed to have been involved, has reopened wounds for the entire nationalist population.
Relatives of those killed have been “re-traumatised” by the operation, Relatives for Justice, has said. Chief executive Mark Thompson said his organisation has been contacted by some of those impacted who “cannot comprehend that this has happened”.
It emerged that the PSNI parked their car in the same place where the killer gang’s getaway vehicle pulled up outside the bookmaker’s shop in 1992.
“What happened has taken the whole community back to what happened 29 years ago - to the carnage of what happened,” he said.
“Families have not come to terms with the actions of the PSNI on Friday. We have to provide a listening ear and people have been re-traumatised - some of them have not stopped crying since Friday.”
He added: “What we need is a major re-think on policing......on paper it looks fine in terms of accountability but in reality none of it works”.
Billy McManus, whose father William was among the victims of the massacre, was one of those who was harassed. He said the events of last week and the arrest of Mark Sykes brought grieving families back to the events of 1992.
“On a personal level it was horrifying - 29 years ago I was outside the bookmaker’s trying to get into my father,” he said.
“I witnessed Mark being put on a stretcher with blood on him and taken away in an ambulance and then 29 years later watched him being handcuffed.
“It was humiliating. All of the families witnessed this, some of them tried to intervene but they (PSNI) were determined to take him away.”
Mr McManus said there was a large police operation.
“There must have been 20-25 police officers present, sirens were going, Land Rovers blocking the road, it was an absolute mess. On the day when we remembered our dead, murdered in 1992, it was as if nothing had changed in 29 years.”
PSNI Chief Simon Byrne has apologised but has rejected calls to resign, instead passing the blame to two new recruits, one of whom has been ‘suspended’ and another ‘repositioned’. The actions were taken pending the outcome of a Police Ombudsman investigation into the events.
In response, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald tweeted: “The damage done to public confidence in policing will not be undone by a statement by [the chief constable] 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,” she said.
Ms O’Neill said the approach adopted by the PSNI was “crass, vulgar, insensitive and deliberate”.
She declined to say if she retained confidence in Mr Byrne but did not call on him to resign.
“If the Chief Constable wants to enjoy the confidence of the wider society then it is for him to demonstrate that he will hold people to account and let us all see that in action,” she said.
She contrasted the scenes on the Ormeau Road with the PSNI failure to make arrests when they were seen to facilitate a ‘show of strength’ by a gang of over 50 masked loyalist paramilitaries in east Belfast just 48 hours earlier. The gang were members of the UVF who were engaged in an act of large-scale community intimidation.
“I think that the direct contrast in policing is laid bare for all to see and I think anybody who considers all those things in the round would understand that there certainly is a crisis of confidence in policing among the nationalist community,” she said.
“There appears to be a double standard within the policing service, there appears to be an ethos or culture that turns a blind eye to UDA, UVF thugs on the street, but at the same time a disproportionate attempt to target nationalist communities.”
But there was also criticism of the main nationalist parties for waiting so long to speak out after what Ms O’Neill admitted was “a long line of incidents”.
Éirígí’s Breandan Mac Cionnaith said it is now time for both Sinn Féin and the SDLP to withdraw their support for the PSNI.
Mr Mac Cionnaith said Britain’s police force in Ireland had “no moral right” to harass, attack, arrest or detain any Irish citizen or group of citizens as it did on the Ormeau Road on Friday last.
He pointed to other major issues which have caused festering resentment in the North, such as the PSNI’s prevention of effective investigations and obstruction of inquests into state killings; their withholding of key documentation from families of victims; the continuing involvement of former members of RUC Special Branch; and the operational control by MI5 of numbers of PSNI personnel.
“Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP, with the full support of the political establishment in the Twenty-Six Counties, have repeatedly claimed that the era of political policing and British injustice effectively ended with the re-branding and restructuring of the RUC,” he said.
“Collectively, those parties have repeatedly and publicly endorsed the PSNI and have encouraged our young people to join the ranks of that same organisation.
“Those same parties have also made extensive efforts to integrate the PSNI into nationalist and republican communities, repeatedly facilitating PSNI incursions into community centres, schools and other facilities.
“It is simply not good enough for those parties to suggest that a small rump within the PSNI is responsible for political policing. Any such suggestion is far too close to the ‘few bad apples’ line that was trotted out by the apologists for the RUC in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.”