A judge’s rejection of an attempt by the PSNI to scapegoat two junior members for a notorious case of sectarian policing two years ago has heaped further pressure for the disbandment of the discredited force.
A High Court judge on Wednesday quashed decisions to suspend one PSNI man and reposition another after they attacked a commemoration two years ago to marking the anniversary of the Sean Graham bookmakers massacre.
In February 1992, five people were murdered and nine others wounded when loyalist gunmen opened fire inside the betting shop on the Ormeau Road in south Belfast. On the anniversary of the massacre 29 years later, an annual wreath-laying ceremony at the scene took place, attended by up to 30 people.
Acting on the direct orders of their superiors, the event was set upon by the PSNI. One of those taking part, who had been shot several times in the massace but survived, was arrested and put in handcuffs. He was Mark Sykes, a prominent justice campaigner, and scenes of him being picked out and hauled away in chaotic and violent scenes caused outrage on social media.
Covid regulations were blamed for the incident, despite the commemoration taking place in a quiet and socially distanced manner.
Fuelling the anger was the knowledge that the brutal massacre took place in collusion with the same police force who protected those involved, and who still continue to maintain a cover-up.
The incident came amid other PSNI attacks on republican gatherings, which were also blamed on Covid, including wakes and a funeral. But the hypocrisy of the PSNI’s actions was magnified by an infamous show of strength by loyalist paramilitaries a week earlier in which the PSNI stood by and allowed scores of masked thugs to intimate a community in east Belfast, without interference or arrest.
Nationalists were shocked by the attack on the Ormeau Road commemoration, particularly Sinn Féin supporters. Despite the PSNI allowing the funeral of republican veteran Bobby Storey to go ahead eight months earlier, party supporters felt they were coming in for the same treatment which had previously been reserved for non-SF republican groups.
At the time, Sinn Féin’s deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, tweeted about a culture of double standards in the PSNI and of “turning a blind eye to UDA and UVF thugs, while targeting those laying flowers on the anniversary of loved ones”.
Byrne later confirmed that he spoke to her about the events on the Ormeau Road. As a result, the judge believed the PSNI chief had sacrificed the two junior members in order to calm relations with Sinn Féin.
“Both the deputy chief constable and the chief constable were acutely aware of the threat of Sinn Féin withdrawing support for policing and/or withdrawing from the Policing Board if immediate action was not taken in respect of the officers’ duty status,” he said.
Unionists immediately accused Byrne of caving into political pressure from Sinn Féin and demanded his resignation. Adding to the pressure on Byrne is mounting anger among rank-and-file PSNI members at his failure to support calls for compensation payouts over recent data breaches, including a detailed staff database which was inadvertently hosted on a Freedom of Information website.
Sinn Féin’s political spokesperson Gerry Kelly denied the judge’s accusations of political interference. In a statement, Mr Kelly reaffirmed his party “supports and is fully committed to the new beginning to policing”.
“It is the responsibility of all parties to continue to achieve an effective and efficient service, which polices impartially with the community,” he stated.
“An important part of that is the ability of elected representatives and independent members on the Policing Board to hold the police to account.
“That’s why the Policing Board was set up, and that’s why Sinn Féin continues to play a critical role on the board and other local accountability mechanisms.
“It’s a matter of public record that we raised our valid concerns with the Chief Constable and senior police officers about the arrest of victims on the Ormeau Road where families were commemorating the murders of their loved ones by loyalists.
“I want to set the record straight,” he added.
“At no stage during any calls to, or meetings with, senior PSNI officers did I suggest or insinuate that Sinn Féin would withdraw support for the rule of law or policing, or remove our members from the Policing Board.
“Our focus is fully on continuing to play a role in helping to ensure that our policing service is fair, impartial, efficient, effective and accountable.”