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Chief Constable Simon Byrne urges public to 'step back from the brink' over NI Protocol tensions

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Loyalists are angry at the introduction of new Irish Sea trading arrangements (Brian Lawless/PA)

Loyalists are angry at the introduction of new Irish Sea trading arrangements (Brian Lawless/PA)

PA

Loyalists are angry at the introduction of new Irish Sea trading arrangements (Brian Lawless/PA)

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Simon Byrne has said the public need to "step back from the brink" of violence amid rising community tensions around the Northern Ireland Protocol, and that a solution "is a political one".

Mr Byrne was speaking at a meeting of the Policing Board on Thursday after staff performing Brexit checks at ports in Larne and Belfast were temporarily stood down over safety concerns earlier this week.

Threatening graffiti appeared near ports, however police said there was no suggestion of involvement by loyalist paramilitaries.

Simon Byrne noted there have been "rising community tensions" in the form of graffiti recently and said the atmosphere appeared "febrile".

He said police are increasing there operational speed and will be accelerating the development of intelligence.

"It is now time for wise words and calm heads. We need to work together to look at a route map to normality because that seems to be the opportunity before us, to step back from the brink in terms of community tension," he said.

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PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne

Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne

The DUP's Mervyn Storey asked the chief constable if the level of disruption over the NI Protocol is likely to continue and what steps police are taking to address it.

Simon Byrne said the best solution to the issue is a political one and to date there have been 26 graffiti incidents in relation to the Brexit and the NI Protocol.

He said the "trigger point" was when he EU invoked Article 16 of the Withdrawal Agreement on Friday over vaccine supplies.

"There was some single-strand intelligence, uncorroborated, that fed into a briefing from the local police commander in Larne with partners at the start of the week and that led to people taking steps as how they could protect the safety of their workforce," he said.

"There is no credible evidence to substantiate this one single strand of intelligence.

"Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan has been heavily involved in working with councils, DAERA and other government departments in order to find a resolution to the immediate issues.

"He has stood up our Gold Operating Centre to make sure there are sufficient resources at his disposal to respond to what ever happens next in that sense."

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly questioned the chief constable regarding a loyalist "show of strength" in east Belfast earlier this week, which is believed to be linked to the East Belfast UVF. He said, from watching footage of the incident, there appeared not to be an "appropriate response" from police.

Simon Byrne said that "what you see on a short burst of film isn't always the whole story".

"I have to accept the imagery hasn't done us any favours... this was a fast-time and spontaneous response to what had been shown on social media," he added.

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Masked men in the Pitt Park area of east Belfast being monitored by police

Masked men in the Pitt Park area of east Belfast being monitored by police

Masked men in the Pitt Park area of east Belfast being monitored by police

He said that just after 1.30pm on Tuesday police received some information that related to a specific person in the community and two officers were sent to find the person.

"There was a crowd at the Ballymac Community Centre just before 2.50pm and within three minutes it had grown to 50 people," he explained.

Mr Byrne said officers had found the individual they were looking for in the centre and there was a small police presence at that point who put themselves between the person and the crowd. As more officers responded, the chief constable said the crowd began to disperse.

"We were able to gather evidence at the time and we are following up on that," he added, stating that he understands the entire incident last 17 minutes

He said he has increased the police presence in east Belfast and provided more resources to keep the community safe.

Gerry Kelly added that the "problem with the east Belfast UVF is pre-Covid".

Simon Byrne responded: "This is absolutely a long term problem and that is why we have the organised crime task force. We are using are best efforts to target people that are trying to disrupt the safety of communities, there is no place for this, it is organised crime."

He said they are doubling efforts to review intelligence in order to assure the public regarding their concerns.

ACC Barbara Gray said that, in relation to paramilitaries, there have been 37 arrests, 43 charges and reports, 99 searches and 53 drugs seizures in the last six months.

Belfast Telegraph


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