The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Marie Anderson, has issued a Statutory Report examining the PSNI’s handling of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations in Belfast and Derry-Londonderry in June this year.
The 88 page document contains several clear criticisms of the way these events were policed, not least in comparison to a ‘Protect Our Monuments’ demonstration at Belfast City Hall, a week later, organised as a counter-protest to a BLM event that in the end did not proceed.
While the report identifies discrimination, however, it states that this was “not intentional and not based on race or ethnicity”. This element is the focus of a statement from a coalition of Black and Minority Ethnic Communities across Northern Ireland, who strongly reject this conclusion, urging the PSNI and political leaders to “recognise that institutional racism was and is at play in Northern Ireland, June 6 is evidence of this, and subsequently make the steps to dismantle it”.
The Ombudsman’s report comes in the wake of sustained campaigning from many of those groups, who have called for fines that were imposed on some of the BLM demonstrators to be overturned, and for the PSNI Chief Constable to recognise and apologise for the discriminatory treatment of the protesters.
Acknowledging that the “protesters who sought to exercise their rights in support of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ on 6th June were unfairly treated”, the statutory report notes that public perception of discrimination relating to the treatment of the two different groups is “justified”.
“The impact of PSNI actions on 6th June”, says the report, “was significant and there is evidence that there has been a loss of confidence in PSNI from some within the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities”. It goes on to say: “By contrast with 6th June there is evidence that the operational policy on 13th June sought to balance the rights of demonstrators”.
In contrast to their approach to the BLM protests, which the police had tried to stop, the PSNI approach to the Protect Our Monuments demonstration was aimed at encouraging the demonstrators to gather in a COVID- 19 compliant manner”.
The Ombudsman also raised the disparity in the issuing of fines, or ‘Fixed Penalty Notices’ (FPNs), noting that while FPNs were issued at both Belfast and Derry-Londonderry BLM demonstrations on 6 June, none were issued at the 13 June City Hall event.
Other matters of note included the police decision to rely on the Serious Crime Act when handling the BLM protests (the police chose not to use this Act in relation to the Protect Our Monuments protest); and the difference in approaches taken by police in relation to the two BLM events, with the Derry-Londonderry demonstration seeing far higher rates of FPNs than Belfast.
The PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne has issued a form of apology, saying:
"It is clear to me that some members of the Black and Minority Ethnic Community have been frustrated, angry and upset by our policing response and our relationship with them has suffered…For that I am sorry, and I am determined in that regard to put things right."
However, the statement from the Black and Minority Ethnic Communities describes this as an “insufficient and incomplete apology”, going on to “urge both the PSNI and political leaders to recognise that institutional racism remains endemic across Northern Ireland, June 6 is evidence of this, and that urgent steps need to be taken to dismantle it and the necessary resources need to be allocated to the task”.
The MME Council supports the call to take urgent steps to dismantle institutional racism in Northern Ireland, in line with the message of our ‘I Can’t Breathe’ statement issued earlier this year.
23 December 2020