Northern Ireland

Community leader and charity were let down by police – chief constable

Muhammad Atif, from the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association (Liam McBurney/PA)
Muhammad Atif, from the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association (Liam McBurney/PA) Muhammad Atif, from the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association (Liam McBurney/PA)

A community leader and a charity in south Belfast were “let down by police”, Northern Ireland’s chief constable has said.

Jon Boutcher was reacting after Muhammad Atif, chair of the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association, spoke about the police response following a spate of attacks on its premises.

There were incidents of vandalism at the organisation’s former premises on Donegall Pass, and it was set on fire twice, in 2020 and again in 2021.

Mr Atif’s told the BBC’s Spotlight programme that he feels they were failed by police in terms of response, and it was claimed police suggested they reassure loyalist community leaders that they were not running a mosque.

In a recording of a meeting between police and the organisation, an officer said there was a perception that the building was a mosque because people had reportedly been seen carrying prayer mats into it.

Belfast Multi-Cultural Association fire
Belfast Multi-Cultural Association fire Muhammad Atif from the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association (Liam McBurney/PA)

This led to criticism that police were suggesting that victims change their behaviour.

Speaking at a meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, Mr Boutcher said he watched the Spotlight programme, and his “heart sunk with regards to Mr Atif said and how he felt the organisation had let him down”.

He said he will meet with Mr Atif, but stressed that recovery work is already under way.

“This is something that we can never take our foot off the ball with regards to any hatred, if you look at what happened only on November 23 in Dublin where people can react very quickly in a way that none of us want to see, in an absolutely unacceptable and cowardly way because of misinformation,” he said.

PSNI new chief constable
PSNI new chief constable PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher (Liam McBurney/PA)

“We have got some recovery to do there, I accept that. I think that has begun.

“This isn’t going to be about one meeting, this is about a series of interactions with our communities.”

Mr Boutcher said in terms of the recording that there are “two sides to every story”.

“I talk about a learning culture and not a blame culture but we should be no doubt that we let Mr Atif down, we let that charity down,” he said.

Expressing concern about the “right wing extremism narrative”, Mr Boutcher said there will be “tangible reassurance” that the police will tackle hate crimes and hate incidents.

Assistant Chief Constable Bobby Singleton said a critical incident structure was established at the time of the attacks, and detective-led investigations were carried out.

“We had two people arrested for the 2021 attack following the recovery of CCTV and a file went to the Public Prosecution Service but it was deemed that the prosecutorial threshold had not been met in terms of the evidence that was presented,” he said.

He said what was presented on Spotlight is of “concern to us”.