Northern Ireland

Calls for policing shake-up amid anger at Ormeau Road arrest

Support for under-fire Chief Constable Simon Byrne was voiced by Naomi Long. Picture by Alan Lewis/Photopress
Support for under-fire Chief Constable Simon Byrne was voiced by Naomi Long. Picture by Alan Lewis/Photopress

MICHELLE O'Neill has called for an immediate change in the "culture and ethos of policing" after describing the events of the past week as a "watershed moment" for public confidence in the PSNI.

Friday's arrest of Mark Sykes, a survivor of the 1992 loyalist massacre of five Catholics in Sean Graham's bookmakers on Belfast's Ormeau Road, coupled with images of dozens of masked UVF members gathering in east Belfast, has led to widespread criticism of PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne.

The chief constable has apologised to those involved in Friday's memorial event, while one PSNI officer was suspended and another repositioned in the aftermath of the episode, footage of which was widely viewed on social media.

The Police Ombudsman is also examining the circumstances of the arrest, which saw Mr Sykes led away in handcuffs before being released later that day.

Speaking yesterday after a Sinn Féin delegation had "forthright and frank" discussions with the chief constable, the deputy first minister said the events had caused "unprecedented anger in recent times".

"I made it clear that the events of last week, both the arrest of a victim laying flowers on the anniversary of the Ormeau Road massacre and the PSNI's failure to intervene as dozens of masked UVF members roamed the streets have created a crisis in public confidence in policing," she said.

"The stark contrast between the policing operations in east Belfast and on the Ormeau Road has caused considerable anger and I reflected this to Simon Byrne."

The Sinn Féin deputy leader said a change in policing culture needed to begin immediately.

Earlier, Justice Minister Naomi Long voiced support for the under-fire PSNI chief constable but conceded that confidence in policing had been "damaged".

"I don't think it is good to personalise this around one individual," the Alliance leader told the BBC.

"I think whoever would have been chief constable last week, this could still have happened and we would still have had this situation evolving over the last number of days.

Mrs Long said the test for the chief constable was how he dealt with the fallout of the row.

"I am absolutely committed to working with him and rebuilding the community confidence that has been damaged," she said.

DUP leader Arlene Foster, who led her party delegation to meet the chief constable, called for "fair and impartial policing, free from political influence."

She said policing decisions "should be based on the law and not politics".

"The swift response by the chief constable has all the hallmarks of trial by social media and of two young officers being scapegoated," she said.

"This will inevitably cause alarm among those starting their career in the police."

The first minister said Sinn Féin criticism of the police "rings utterly hollow", given what she termed "the antics" of senior party representations at the funeral of Bobby Storey in June.

Former Ulster Unionist leader and Policing Board member Mike Nesbitt said there were a number of outstanding questions in relation to Friday's events.

“This was a very unfortunate incident on the Lower Ormeau Road on Friday but there is no excuse for any politician to use it to question or undermine confidence in the police service," he said.

The Strangford MLA said he had heard Ms O'Neill make reference to Friday being "the latest in a long line of incidents".

"Yet, I have not heard any of the Sinn Féin representatives on the Policing Board raise any line of incidents at board meetings recently, nor have they articulated the view that there is a crisis of confidence in the police within the nationalist community," he said.

“Politicians must avoid the urge to use Friday’s events to be divisive and drag us backwards. Instead, we must learn lessons and move forward together.”