Jon Burrows: The whole saga surrounding the Ormeau Road incident is a microcosm of what is wrong in Northern Ireland

The unfair and unlawful treatment of two young PSNI officers by the most senior police officers in the land was a grave dereliction of leadership.
The memorial service on the Ormeau Road in February 2021 was in breach of health rules. The two officers involved in the incident acted in an exemplary way, writes Jon Burrows.The memorial service on the Ormeau Road in February 2021 was in breach of health rules. The two officers involved in the incident acted in an exemplary way, writes Jon Burrows.
The memorial service on the Ormeau Road in February 2021 was in breach of health rules. The two officers involved in the incident acted in an exemplary way, writes Jon Burrows.

​I have consistently and unequivocally said that both officers acted in an exemplary way and that they would eventually be exonerated. It is shameful that it has taken so long and that it will cost the taxpayer several hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal costs.

The witch hunt of these honourable young officers was about much more than weak police leaders capitulating to political pressure. The whole saga is a microcosm of what is wrong in Northern Ireland, where the rule of law, the institutions of the state and much of the media have been compromised by the fear of upsetting those who threaten the most and shout the loudest.

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Now that all the misconduct proceedings have concluded, I will over two articles shed more light on the biggest scandal in the PSNI’s history. In this first article I will focus on the 24-hour period from the Ormeau Road incident on February 5, 2021 to the dramatic dusk press conference the next day when the former chief constable announced he was suspending one officer and removing the other from front line duties.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident on the Ormeau Road, a false narrative was pedalled by several republicans that rogue officers had aggressively stormed a memorial service for the victims of the terrible Sean Graham’s atrocity.

The falsehoods included that the memorial was compliant with the covid-19 regulations and that officers had arrested a survivor whilst he was laying flowers at the memorial. A video clip went viral which purported to show PSNI officers intervening during the memorial service.

This was utter nonsense as the leadership of the PSNI found out once they watched the body-worn video. However, instead of decisively countering false facts and defending lawful policing, the PSNI leadership threw two junior officers under the bus.

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The truth was that the officers came across the memorial service whilst on routine patrol, unaware of what it was. The organisers of the memorial normally inform the police each year in advance to ensure awareness, but they did not in 2021. There were around 35 people present at the memorial - that was a prima facie breach of the health regulations in operation at that time.

The officers, following direction given by their supervisors, awaited until the memorial ended before trying to speak to an organiser. In fact, they waited for another five minutes after it finished, by which stage the road had reopened and the families had left, barring four organisers. Then and only then did the officers try to obtain the name of an organiser in order that suspected health regulation breaches could be followed up.

During a volatile interaction that followed, the two officers were consistently professional and remarkably restrained. The attendees of the memorial who had left the area were called back. This was the incident that the viral mobile phone video was of, not the earlier uninterrupted memorial service.

The two officers were jeered, jostled, subjected to sectarian abuse and one female slapped an officer hard in the face. Some members of the crowd obstructed the officers by linking arms to prevent the arrest of a man for disorderly behaviour.

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When more police arrived, the suspect was arrested and over the course of the next hour the officers pleaded with him to provide his name so they could release him, he refused. One officer kept his body worn video on during the entire time the suspect was in the police car - this highlighted their professionalism but also revealed unlawful directions that were made to them by more senior officers.

Phone calls between senior police officers and republican politicians and community activists began almost immediately after the suspect's release. Effectively the republican movement began negotiating an arrested person’s release. Gerry Kelly, despite being a member of the Policing Board, published a press release calling for the immediate release of the suspect and a public apology to the families. He then rang the deputy chief constable.

In an episode of banana republic policing, the normal laws governing police arrests requiring suspects to be brought to a police custody suite were torn up. The young officers were first told to leave their handcuffed prisoner at a republican advice centre. When this unlawful direction was not followed, they were ordered to de-arrest him in the yard of Musgrave Police Station even though he had refused to provide his name.

Over the next 24 hours, according to handwritten notes of senior officers and the minutes of police meetings, sustained political pressure was applied to the former chief constable to suspend the innocent arresting officer. There are references in police records to a ‘republican Drumcree’ and of ‘grave consequences for republican support for policing’ if an officer was not suspended.

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The legal decision maker for suspension in the PSNI is the deputy chief constable, who initially decided not to suspend any officer. However, the former chief constable who was in phone contact with then deputy first minister Michelle O’Neil, pressed his deputy to suspend the arresting officer, referring to the need to act within 24 hours of the initial incident.

At just after 4.30pm, a law-abiding police officer was suspended, another who was the victim of assault was removed from front line duties, and the former chief constable agreed to issue a public apology to those who had held a memorial service in breach of covid health rules. Remarkably, within 24 hours three republican demands had been acceded to – a suspect had been released, a police officer suspended and a public apology issued.

Jon Burrows is a retired senior PSNI officer.

In part two next week, Jon outlines how another republican demand was granted and more.