Northern Ireland news

Ethnic minority leaders refusing to engage with Chief Constable after Black Lives Matter fines

A Black Lives Matter protest was held in Customs House Square in Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann

ETHNIC minority community leaders are refusing to engage with Chief Constable Simon Byrne until he makes a public apology and the "PSNI drop all fines and threat of legal action" over socially distanced anti-racism protests.

Nigerian lawyer and activist Adekanmi Abayomi said frustrations were made clear at a meeting called by Mr Byrne three days after Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Belfast and Derry on June 6.

Up to 70 people were penalised for breaches of coronavirus lockdown regulations after enforcement powers were given to the PSNI at 11pm on Friday 5 June.

There was an outcry a week later after no fines were issued when hundreds of people gathered to "protect Belfast cenotaph" outside City Hall - with many participants reportedly not social distancing.

The Police Ombudsman has launched an investigation and the Policing Board is also reviewing the PSNI "response to Covid-19", while a raft of legal challenges to the fines have been issued.

Mr Abayomi claimed the June 5 amendment to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 was "targeted at these anti-racism protests to deprive people of their right to peaceful protest".

"If black lives really matter, government would not have speedily amended the regulations on the eve of these protests, whilst the hate crime legislation sits comfortably on the waiting list - despite its urgency and importance to the lives of minorities and blacks."

He added that people are "under the false idea that institutional racism is alien to Northern Ireland".

An Executive Office spokeswoman did not dispute the timeline, but insisted it was not driven by the anti-racism protests.

"The coronavirus regulations were introduced to protect people and save lives during the Covid-19 emergency.

"The regulations have been kept under continuous review and have undergone numerous amendments, taking account of the scientific evidence and medical advice on the course of the pandemic.

"The Black Lives Matter protests did not influence amendments to the regulations in any way."

Mr Abayomi said he is "convinced that the Chief Constable Simon Byrne of the PSNI knew the injustice committed against the Black Lives Matter protests and this underscores the reason why he hurriedly called a meeting of community stakeholders on June 9, 2020, to control the damage arising from police actions".

The lawyer said those present "made it clear to the Chief Constable that they would only engage him when the PSNI dropped all fines and threats of legal action".

"(They) also requested for a public apology for the disparity between the Black Lives Matter protests and the other gatherings."

Mr Byrne has since written to the group quoting Department of Justice guidance that a penalty notice can only be cancelled "where it has not been issued in accordance with the law".

However, Mr Abayomi claimed the fines breach the law because they were only issued "to Black Lives Matter protestors whilst they saw nothing wrong with the other protests", with the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003 and the European Code of Police Ethics (2001) requiring police to act `in a fair manner, guided, in particular, by the principles of impartiality and non-discrimination'.

"The police have the responsibility to show impartiality in issuing out fines - without favouring any person or group. Can the police justify their action according to the law by sustaining fines issued to the Black Lives Matter protestors - despite complying with the social distancing guidelines?

"Why did the police fail to serve any penalty notice on the protestors at the right-wing protest in Belfast held on June 13 2020 and the over-crowded funeral of a republican on June 30 2020 in Belfast, during which social distancing rules were flouted?"

The Executive changed restrictions on gatherings just hours before the funeral of veteran IRA member Bobby Storey last month.

Mr Abayomi claims UK case law demands that "a mere appearance of bias of the PSNI is sufficient to overturn the police decision and cancel the fines issued to Black Lives Matter protestors".

A PSNI spokeswoman said Mr Byrne recognises "this is a difficult time for minority communities... and held two meetings with a range of representatives from across the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities in Northern Ireland".

"Senior officers and staff also continue to engage with representatives, listening to concerns and taking steps to resolve issues; as well as building relationships for the future.

"We are aware of community concerns and perceptions of how the Black Lives Matters protests in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry were policed on June 6.

"The Police Service of Northern Ireland is committed to discharging its policing responsibilities in an inclusive, non-biased, lawful and proportionate manner.

"Therefore, we welcome independent oversight of our actions, and we are working with the Police Ombudsman’s Office who is carrying out an independent investigation into how the police have enforced the Coronavirus Public Health Regulations at large public gatherings."

She added that the PSNI is "very keen" for the reviews and legal challenges to conclude so "any lessons learned can be given due consideration" and help "inform ongoing community engagement and relationship building".

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