PSNI is free to say if it is investigating criminal offences at Sean Graham Bookmakers commemoration, says Police Ombudsman

The PSNI is perfectly free to say if it is running criminal investigations into civilians at a victims commemoration on the Ormeau Road in Belfast on Friday, despite claiming to the contrary, the Police Ombudsman has said.

Thursday, 11th February 2021, 9:25 am
Updated Thursday, 11th February 2021, 12:50 pm

A highly controversial arrest took place on the Ormeau Road in Belfast on Friday after an commemoration event to mark the murder of five people at Sean Graham Bookmaker by the UDA in February 1992. 

In public statements, the PSNI has given a list of suspected criminal offences which took place - including a minor injury to a PSNI officer’s face.

However the PSNI has now insisted to the News Letter it cannot say if it is now pursuing criminal investigations into any of the issues - due to a specific request by the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland (PONI) - something the watchdog appears to have firmly rejected. As a result, TUV leader and criminal law QC Jim Allister has branded the PSNI stance on the issue as “wholly disingenuous”.

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Chief Constable Simon Byrne

The arrest took place on the Ormeau Road in Belfast on Friday after an event to mark the murder of five people, including a 15-year-old boy.

Two passing PSNI officers were directed to intervene by superior officers, due toconcerns that Covid regulations were being breached by the size of the gathering.The PSNI has said that from bodycam footage it is certain that some 30 people attended the event, whereas the current limit on public gatherings is six.

The two officers approached a survivor of the atrocity, Mark Sykes, and shortly afterwards arrested him on suspicion of disorderly behaviour and resisting arrest. Mr Sykes was shot seven times in the 1992 attack and his brother in-law was murdered. 

Police also said that one officer suffered a minor injury to their face during the incident, though there is no suggestion this was linked to Mr Sykes personally.

Police arrested a victim of a Troubles shooting on suspicion of disorderly behaviour on the Ormeau Road.

However, after an outcry about the arrest, Chief Constable Simon Byrnes announced on Saturday evening that he had suspended one officer involved, repositioned another and apologised for their conduct, which he said did not align with PSNI values.

In the past few days the News Letter has asked the PSNI if it is pursuing criminal investigations with regards to the potential offences it had listed in various press statements on the matter;- suspected disorderly behaviour, resisting arrest, breach of covid regulations and the issue of how a police officer was injured on the face. However a PSNI spokeswoman said there would be no comment as the Police Ombudsman asked it to make no further comment.

“As there is a live investigation by the Office of the Police Ombudsman, it is now for them to determine the exact circumstances of the incident and they have asked that Police Service of Northern Ireland do not comment further on the incident,” she said. 

The PONI, however, has now told the News Letter that the PSNI is “free to comment on whether or not they are carrying out any investigation” into potential criminal offences by civilians - which it does not and cannot investigate.

TUV leader Jim Allister. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

It added that it had only asked the PSNI not to comment on the issues within PONI’s remit - the conduct of the PSNI officers and the related facts of what happened on the day. 

In response, the PSNI still insisted it is still not free to comment. The spokeswoman said: “The Ombudsman wrote to us asking that we make no further commentary on the Ormeau Road full stop. As previously advised we will not be making any further comment.”

However she added that n Monday the PSNI had said officers’ bodycam footage will be “reviewed in respect of the health protection regulations”.

However TUV leader Jim Allister, a criminal law QC, described the PSNI comments as “wholly disingenuous”. 

He added: “Of course, The Police Ombudsman is only involved regarding the actions of the Police Constables. It is unbecoming that the PSNI should indulge in such obfuscation. The Chief Constable, having gone so public on the narrative he wanted to promote, it is imperative that all the facts are made known and the public know what, if any, focus there is on the public order and Covid breaches.” 

Speaking after his release from police custody, Mr Sykes’ lawyer Niall Murphy of KRW Law said the PSNI had “no right” to be at the commemoration event.

”The only disorderly behaviour that happened on the Ormeau Road today was by the police who had no right to be there and who have wreaked havoc on community relations both in the Ormeau Road and in the wider community,” he said. His law firm, KRW Law also tweeted a call for the PSNI not to investigate any civilians present.

”Clarity required that no family member who was in attendance is under suspicion or investigation and specifically re Mr Sykes, that the investigation of his alleged disorderly behaviour is dropped and there is no further action taken,” the firm tweeted.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP were particularly exercised by the arrest as they perceived it was heavy handed in comparison to the PSNI failure to make arrests during a UVF show of strength in east Belfast last week.Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the arrest of Mr Sykes marked “a watershed moment for public confidence in policing”.  


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