Northern Ireland news

Senior officer defends PSNI response to anti-racism protests

A Black Lives Matter protest in Belfast at the weekend, and inset, the demonstration has been contrasted with the queues outside the city's reopened Ikea store
Brendan Hughes

A SENIOR police officer has defended the PSNI issuing dozens of fines to demonstrators attending anti-racism protests.

Between 60 and 70 fines were issued to those attending Black Lives Matter protests at the weekend in Derry and Belfast, Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said yesterday.

Mr Todd said he "absolutely" sympathised with the cause, but pre-planned large scale events breached coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

"On any other day, this police service would be standing right beside the organisers to facilitate their protest and their right to have their voices heard about the unjustifiable and unnecessary death of George Floyd," he said.

Organisers of the protests, which took place at Belfast's Custom House Square and the Guildhall in Derry, have said efforts were made to maintain social distancing.

Critics of the police response contrasted the demonstrations with the scenes at Ikea in Belfast last week when huge queues of shoppers formed outside the reopened store.

An online fund organised by Alliance for Choice to support protesters fined for attending the rallies has reached more than £18,000.

Mr Todd told BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan programme: "I completely reject any notion that our action before, during and since the weekend has been in any way disproportionate. In fact, quite the reverse."

Speaking earlier on Good Morning Ulster, he said many people were "turned around" at transport centres and fines were not imposed in those cases.

He said that had police not taken action they did, they "could reasonably have seen many thousands of people turn out".

Mr Todd said a file had been passed to the Public Prosecution Service on the event organisers.

The rallies were among a wave of protests held globally following the death of African-American George Floyd in the US while being arrested by police.

Reginald Clarke, one of the speakers at the Belfast event, said he was fined while walking alone towards the protest area.

He called for clarity on the criteria for fines, pointing out that social-distance markings were made on pavements and masks were distributed.

Solicitor Ciaran Moynagh from Phoenix Law, which offered free legal advice to protesters, said he would be contacting the PSNI to discuss having the fines voided.

Stormont justice minister Naomi Long said she fully supported "people's right to protest", but added: "When it comes to whether or not large gatherings are appropriate during the coronavirus, the answer is simply no, because it places lives at risk."

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