Northern Ireland

PSNI officers 'infuriated' as chief constable considers appeal over court judgement

Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable Simon Byrne leaves James House in Belfast after a special meeting of the Policing Board. Picture date: Thursday August 31, 2023.
Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable Simon Byrne leaves James House in Belfast after a special meeting of the Policing Board. Picture date: Thursday August 31, 2023. Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable Simon Byrne leaves James House in Belfast after a special meeting of the Policing Board. Picture date: Thursday August 31, 2023.

The Police Federation (PFNI) has said its members are "infuriated" that Chief Constable Simon Byrne is considering an appeal over a High Court judgement which stated that two junior officers were unlawfully disciplined.

The officers were punished for making an arrest at a 2001 service marking an anniversary of the February 1992 Sean Graham bookmakers attack on the Ormeau Road in south Belfast.

On Tuesday, a judge quashed the actions taken against two junior officers after making an arrest at the Troubles commemoration event.

Mr Justice Scoffield said the decision to discipline the officers was made to allay any threat of Sinn Féin abandoning its support for policing in Northern Ireland.

Unionists have accused Mr Byrne of taking unjustified action against the officers to placate republicans, while Sinn Féin has denied there was any threat to withdraw support for policing.

Pressure has been mounting on Mr Byrne as he insisted he would not resign following a marathon meeting with his oversight body yesterday.

The discussions with the Policing Board were brought to a close on Thursday after a legal issue arose, which board members said they could not comment publicly on.

The DUP said it had not changed its position in calling for Mr Byrne's resignation following the meeting, while the UUP called on both Mr Byrne and the deputy chief constable Mark Hamilton to resign.

UUP leader Doug Beattie said this was for "the good of the service and to enable controlled change in the senior leadership positions within the PSNI".

Policing Board members Joanne Bunting and Trevor Clarke arriving at James House (Liam McBurney/PA)
Policing Board members Joanne Bunting and Trevor Clarke arriving at James House (Liam McBurney/PA) Policing Board members Joanne Bunting and Trevor Clarke arriving at James House (Liam McBurney/PA)

The senior police officer was already facing questions over a major data blunder which led to personal details of PSNI officers entering the public domain and getting into the hands of dissident republicans.

Following the emergency meeting on Thursday, Mr Byrne said: "The deputy chief constable and I spent several hours in discussion with the Northern Ireland Policing Board surrounding the events of February 5-6, 2021," he said.

"I highlighted that, after carefully reviewing the full judgment, I sought further advice. After consideration, the question of an appeal is now live.

"Further public commentary around this matter is not appropriate at this stage."

Asked if he retained the confidence of the Policing Board, Mr Byrne said: "That is a matter for the Policing Board."

When asked about his position, he said: "I'm not resigning."

Chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland (PFNI) Liam Kelly called the statement "hugely disappointing and unexpected" and said its members had been "infuriated" by it.

"He has previously publicly accepted the JR ruling, but now has gone volte face and is considering appealing it," Mr Kelly said.

"If he does appeal, we expect he will use the PSNI budget which is already stretched to breaking point.

"In effect, he would be appealing against his own actions against his own officers, dragging this matter out both internally and externally.

"This has infuriated and antagonised the rank and file further and once again the two officers at the centre of the case are being treated disdainfully."

The PFNI's executive central committee is due to hold an extraordinary meeting next Wednesday where it will discuss whether to call a no confidence vote.

"It is hugely damaging to officer morale and confidence and has to be condemned."

Simon Byrne arriving at James House in Belfast for a meeting of the Policing Board (Liam McBurney/PA)
Simon Byrne arriving at James House in Belfast for a meeting of the Policing Board (Liam McBurney/PA) Simon Byrne arriving at James House in Belfast for a meeting of the Policing Board (Liam McBurney/PA)

"I had hoped to refrain from saying anything publicly until the extraordinary meeting of my Executive Central Committee next Wednesday," Mr Kelly added.

"However, such is the outrage that has been expressed by the rank and file, on behalf of the two officers and my colleagues, I feel I have no other option but to call it out - in short I am disgusted, disillusioned and extremely angry."

Several members of the policing board emerged afterwards to state that a legal issue had arisen during discussions, but didn't give further details.

Mr Beattie has called for a "root-and-branch review" of the Policing Board following Thursday evening's meeting.

"I am calling on the Department of Justice to commission an independent review, with particular focus on the efficacy of the way the board and its main sub committees hold senior officers to account," he said.

Policing Board chairwoman Deirdre Toner said board members had asked for clarity on matters raised in the judgment about an incident "deemed to be critical for policing".

"After today's discussions it has become clear that there are now legal issues that the board needs to consider and receive advice on," she said.

DUP MLA Trevor Clarke said his position that Mr Byrne should resign as chief constable of the PSNI "has not changed".

He said a legal issue had brought discussions with Mr Byrne to an end on Thursday evening.

When asked what the legal issue was, Mr Clarke said: "That would be a better question for the chief constable, given that it's his issue. I think we need to give him space to explore what those options are on the basis of that."

He said the issue had not been on the Policing Board's "radar", "to the extent that it became evident in the meeting".

"It wasn't there at the start of the process, but as the day unfolded that legal issue was presented," he said.

Sinn Féin Policing Board member Linda Dillon said it was made clear by her party during the meeting that it did not threaten to withdraw support for policing.

She said: "I am content that we have made our position very clear that at no time did Sinn Féin threaten to either withdraw from the Policing Board or to withdraw support for policing and the rule of law.

"I still stand over what we said at the time that the treatment of Mark Sykes, the arrest and how that unveiled on the day, him a victim himself and the families that were there at a commemoration, was appalling.

"There can be no question about that."

The incident happened on the Ormeau Road in February 2021 during a service marking the anniversary of the February 1992 Sean Graham bookmakers attack, in which five people were murdered.

The two officers faced action in 2021 after the arrest of Mark Sykes, a survivor of a loyalist gun attack on the bookmakers in south Belfast.

The incident unfolded when police challenged people attending a memorial event amid suspicions that the size of the public gathering breached coronavirus regulations.

Mr Sykes was handcuffed and arrested in chaotic exchanges captured on social media.

The incident triggered a major controversy at the time and sparked criticism of Mr Byrne.

Mr Byrne apologised for the PSNI's handling of the event at the time, and it was announced that one officer was to be suspended and one repositioned.