The DUP and TUV have said it amounts to “two tier policing” while the UUP has called for an urgent meeting with Chief Constable Simon Byrne, who is under increasing pressure after the latest in a series of disastrous revelations involving his organisation
One probationary constable was suspended and his colleague re-positioned following an outcry at how police handled a service marking an anniversary of the February 1992 Sean Graham bookmakers attack.
The commemoration which was attended by up to 30 people took place in February 2021 when Covid-19 restrictions were in place. The two officers detained one man on suspicion of disorderly behaviour
Chief Constable Simon Byrne later apologised for the incident and confirmed the disciplinary steps taken against the two recently-recruited officers.
In the aftermath the Chief Constable and his deputy were contacted by Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Kelly, who were unhappy that the arrest had been made on the Ormeau Road while there had been no immediate police intervention at an alleged loyalist show of strength at Pitt Park in east Belfast days earlier.
Mr Justice Scoffield in his ruling said: “Both the Deputy Chief Constable and the Chief Constable were acutely aware of the threat of Sinn Fein withdrawing support for policing and/or withdrawing from the Policing Board if immediate action was not taken in respect of the officers’ duty status.
“It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the pressure so exerted was, in large measure, a result of a wholly separate and unrelated (Pitt Park) incident which was wrongly conflated with the actions of the applicants in the incident in which they were involved.
“I have been persuaded that the respondent imposed suspension in the first applicant’s case because of the threat (whether real or perceived) that, if it did not do so, republican support for policing would be withdrawn.
“To reach a decision on that basis was in my view unlawful.”
The DUP’s lead representative on the Policing Board Trevor Clarke said the ruling by Mr Justice Schofield on disciplinary action taken against the two officers shows the chief constable chose political considerations above natural justice for his own officers.
He said: “The ruling by Mr Justice Schofield goes to the heart of many decisions, and not just the incident on the Ormeau Road.
“Two young police officers had their lives and careers unjustifiable disrupted, and the PSNI leadership chose to stand with Sinn Fein rather than their own officers. This took place against a backdrop where there were no prosecutions arising from the Bobby Storey funeral and indeed police actions frustrated attempts to prosecute senior Sinn Fein officials. In contrast of course bandsmen in Markethill will face prosecution.
“There are huge questions to be answered around this case when a court has ultimately determined that two-tier policing has operated in Northern Ireland. The rule of law must apply equally to everyone in Northern Ireland, yet even PSNI officers were thrown to the wolves by their own bosses to placate Sinn Fein.
“This commenced even in the immediate aftermath of the Ormeau Road incident, before even the most basic of investigations could have taken place to determine the facts. Instead, the Chief Constable immediately apologised, appearing to choose political considerations above natural justice for his own officers.
“Public confidence in the PSNI has been significantly tested over recent weeks, and this ruling today underscores why many unionists have had and continue to have grave concerns on these issues.”
TUV leader Jim Allister reacted: “Today’s ruling by the High Court that two PSNI officers were unlawfully disciplined by the Chief Constable in order to placate Sinn Fein should mark the end of Mr Byrne’s tenure.
“This is a staggering indictment of the Chief Constable and a sobering insight into the politics of keep Sinn Fein happy at all costs, even at the cost of sacrificing your own officers.
“What many of us have long suspected has been laid bare by this case. The Chief Constable intervened at the diktat of Gerry Kelly and Sinn Fein to recklessly throw two young officers under the bus. Due process, proportionality and lawfulness all were secondary to keeping IRA/Sinn Fein on board. What they demanded they got, courtesy of the spineless Chief Constable.
“This ruling starkly illustrates how fatally compromised the PSNI is by the Belfast Agreement. Everything, even fair treatment of police officers, plays second fiddle to appeasing Republicans.
“However, para 29 of the judgement also raises serious questions for the Chair and CEO of the Policing Board: ‘Later that day the Chief Constable met with the chair and the Chief Executive of the Policing Board. They too watched the relevant footage. The DCC later joined them. They too were deeply concerned and expressed the view that the PSNI needed to quickly examine the duty and status of the officer and move quickly to make the police position clear in the public domain. The public interest and need to act soon were emphasised to the DCC as the appropriate authority. The DCC expressed the view at that point there was a case to re-position the officers. A conversation about suspension then followed’."
Mr Allister asked: “Why was the Chair and CEO of the Policing Board involved in the unlawful treatment of these officers? How is that the function of an oversight body, and why were they ganging up to crucify the young officers?
“The politics of this, stinks.”
Ulster Unionist Party Leader Doug Beattie MC MLA and UUP Policing Board representative Mike Nesbitt MLA have written to the Chief Constable calling for an urgent meeting in response to Mr Justice Scoffield’s High Court ruling to quash the decision made to suspend a police officer and to re-position another officer following disorderly behaviour at the memorial gathering.
Mr Nesbitt said: “It is unacceptable that a political party can influence policing and the duty status of any police officer, as has been made clear in Mr Justice Scoffield’s ruling.
“Doug and I shall be making clear our view and seeking to establish how this happened, on what other occasions it may have happened and how the Chief Constable intends to reassure the public it can never happen again.”