Northern Ireland news

Police officers at Sean Graham commemoration 'sacrificed' by PSNI, court told

Mark Sykes, who was injured in the Sean Graham loyalist attack, is arrested at the commemoration in February 2021

Two junior PSNI officers disciplined over an arrest made at a Troubles atrocity commemoration had their reputations wrongly "sacrificed" to satisfy a public clamour for punishment, the High Court has heard.

The probationer constables are challenging the Chief Constable for the actions taken against them amid an outcry at police handling of the service to mark the 29th anniversary of the Sean Graham bookmakers attack in south Belfast.

One man who had been shot and injured in the loyalist massacre was detained at the event in February last year on suspicion of disorderly behaviour but subsequently released without charge.

Following the incident one officer was suspended from duty and the other re-positioned.

Backed by the Police Federation, the pair are seeking a judicial review of the lawfulness of the disciplinary moves.

Barrister Ronan Lavery KC argued that the PSNI got it wrong by focusing on the fall-out, rather than the seriousness of any alleged misconduct.

"There was a public clamour for punishment, to try and settle the mob," he claimed.

"The public interest can't be sated by the bloodletting of junior officers."

Five people were murdered and nine others wounded when loyalist gunmen opened fire inside the bookmakers on the Ormeau Road in February 1992.

Last year's wreath-laying ceremony was held at a time when public gatherings were restricted due to Covid-19 regulations.

During the event attended by up to 30 people, a man was arrested and put in handcuffs.

Chief Constable Simon Byrne later apologised for the incident and confirmed the steps taken against the two recently-recruited officers.

In a statement, one of the constables stressed they were unaware that a commemorative event was being held on the Ormeau Road.

He claimed there was some hostility from within the estimated gathering of 30 people, with one man arrested after swearing and ignoring warnings about his behaviour.

The court heard he felt isolated, abandoned, embarrassed and demoralised by the decision to suspend him.

A chief inspector who served him with the notice allegedly remarked that it was the first time in 30 years that he disagreed with a suspension decision, but was following lawful orders.

"The worst thing was the social media content which was circulating, clearly implying there was some sectarian motive at play on the day in question on our behalf," the officer added.

"I felt almost as if the Chief Constable was endorsing those sentiments."

According to Mr Lavery, both constables suffered "the sacrifice of their reputation, simply because of the consequences of a particular incident."

He argued: "What happened was a summary adjudication, an acceptance of the officers' guilt and punishment meted out to satisfy public clamour."

However, Brett Lockhart KC, for the Chief Constable, insisted it had been an unprecedented, "critical incident" which drew heavy criticism from Sinn Féin and jeopardised wider public confidence in Northern Ireland's reformed police service.

"This was not the ruminations of people on social media, these were all sorts of political leaders up to the Deputy First Minister," he said.

Mr Lockhart contended that the Chief Constable had defused a situation which could have gone "horribly wrong."

He told the court: "This was a carefully calibrated decision, there was anxious consideration given to it at three or four meetings involving some of the highest-ranking officers of the PSNI and also looked at by the Policing Board."

The hearing continues.


Northern Ireland news