Belfast Telegraph

PSNI chief Byrne refutes claim children being used as 'pawns' in fight against paramilitaries

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne (centre) speaking at the Northern Ireland Policing Board in Belfast yesterday
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne (centre) speaking at the Northern Ireland Policing Board in Belfast yesterday
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

Chief Constable Simon Byrne has used his first public meeting to play down comments that the PSNI will take children away from parents who are paramilitaries.

Mr Byrne was heavily criticised by Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly who said the remarks amounted to using children as "pawns" in the fight against violent paramilitaries.

Speaking at an event in Belfast on Wednesday, Mr Byrne had said: "My message to them is, 'You carry on doing this, we will have your house; if you keep going, we will have your car, we will have your kids, we will have your benefits and we will put you in jail.'"

Facing the Policing Board yesterday, he refused to apologise for the remarks and maintained it would be necessary for officers to take children into care in a small number of cases.

"I recognise in some cases that's hit a raw nerve. What I was trying to describe was my commitment to increase the tempo and the pace in the fight against paramilitary crime in communities right across the country," he said.

"I think there's an opportunity to use all of our powers both in an investigative sense and in a disruptive sense to tackle the evil scourge of paramilitary crime which gives concern to communities right across the country.

"However, I recognise that my enthusiasm to talk in soundbites has caused a distraction and I want to place on record my commitment to recognising the importance of safeguarding children."

Mr Kelly called on Mr Byrne to withdraw his remarks. "It is obvious those statements make the idea of taking children off anyone not to do with the safeguarding of the child but to do with what effect it has on the parents. I think it's totally wrong."

Mr Byrne replied: "I am quite happy to withdraw the interpretation that children are pawns if that is what's been heard. That is not my intention."

DUP MLA Joanne Bunting, however, said it was right to question if the children of paramilitary members were being raised "in a right and proper" environment.

"To me there is rank hypocrisy in some corners of this room as the IRA has used women and children as human shields for years, so I'm astonished by these remarks about pawns because it hasn't caused them a thought in the past," she said. "The question they should be really asking themselves (is) should the PSNI and social services leave children in proximity to weapons, explosives, drugs and unsavoury characters?"

The Chief Constable also said it was "regrettable" how a policing operation handled the Clyde Valley Flute Band in Londonderry last month. Band members had been wearing Soldier F symbols and their coach was stopped for nearly three hours after the parade.

"I think it's regrettable given what I know at the moment but ... I'm quite convinced from some of the conversations I had the decision was made for the right motive. The application of that decision is probably something we need to look upon (in order to) understand the full effect."

Ulster Unionist MLA and former police officer Alan Chambers asked if there had been a serious breakdown in communication between officers on the ground and senior command that day.

This was because an offer from the band leadership to the PSNI to resolve the situation was not passed on for several hours.

"I think it's fair to say there was a breakdown in communication," said Mr Byrne. "I don't think there's any sense of malicious intent, I think on a busy day when there's lots going on, what was known on the ground ... could and should have been pushed up the chain of command quicker."

Ms Bunting said there was a perception from the loyalist community of two-tier policing, and questioned what action had been taken after guns were fired at three republican funerals this year. She said many of her constituents felt "more likely to be arrested wearing an armband supporting Your Majesty's forces than you are for firing guns in an estate in Belfast".

Mr Byrne said officers were following active lines of enquiry into the incidents but said he did not believe two-tier policing existed.

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