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PSNI urge protesters not to engage in further mass gatherings

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd made the comments ahead of more planned demonstrations over the death of George Floyd in the US.

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Up to 2,000 people gathered in Belfast city centre on Wednesday (David Young/PA)

Up to 2,000 people gathered in Belfast city centre on Wednesday (David Young/PA)

Up to 2,000 people gathered in Belfast city centre on Wednesday (David Young/PA)

A senior PSNI officer has made a strong appeal to protesters not to take part in demonstrations this weekend.

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said his officers are engaging with organisers of Black Lives Matter gatherings to explain the coronavirus regulations, adding if the warnings are ignored then enforcement will be used.

He made the comments ahead of more planned demonstrations across Northern Ireland this weekend over the death of George Floyd in police custody in the United States last week.

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A jogger passes a newly painted mural to George Floyd at Belfast’s International Wall (Liam McBurney/PA)

A jogger passes a newly painted mural to George Floyd at Belfast’s International Wall (Liam McBurney/PA)

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A jogger passes a newly painted mural to George Floyd at Belfast’s International Wall (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Todd later revealed that he understood planned protests in Newry, Portadown and Omagh had been cancelled by organisers.

Events planned for Belfast and Londonderry on Saturday were, on Friday evening, expected to proceed.

Mr Todd described the protests as “valid” but warned that public gatherings of more than six people are currently against coronavirus regulations.

Up to 2,000 people gathered in Belfast city centre on Wednesday to express their support for the Black Lives Matter campaign.

First Minister Arlene Foster described it as a breach of the law and urged that there should be no repeat of it.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said she was fully supportive of the Black Lives Matter campaign but urged those involved to find other ways to show solidarity.

Mr Todd said the decision was taken not to pursue prosecutions over Wednesday’s event bearing in mind the numbers had taken both organisers and police by surprise, adding a “balanced judgement” was made not to pursue potentially lengthy investigations.

He said a proportionality test in terms of the amount of time it would have to invest in bringing charges against anyone present was applied.

But he said this weekend “is not Wednesday”.

“The organisers could not honestly say that they didn’t expect that number of people to turn up and with that knowledge we need all to be responsible,” he told the PA news agency.

“I have a very clear message to organisers, the best way to resolve this for everybody’s interests is to call off these events.

“Large crowd protests are at this time inappropriate.

“If people choose to ignore these warnings and with all the advice and guidance from the chief medical officer, healthcare professionals, from police, from political representatives across the spectrum, if people choose to ignore all that and break the law then there will have to be consequences.

“People can take my messaging today as being my engagement with them, my explanation, and my encouraging them to obey the law – if they choose to ignore the first three Es they can expect over the weekend to find enforcement being used.”

Mr Todd said any gathering of more than six people is against coronavirus regulations, as is travelling for a protest.

He added: “On any other day as a police service we would be fully facilitating those protests in a peaceful and lawful manner with the organisers, however this is not any other day, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and gathering in crowds, socially distanced or otherwise, is both a risk to public health and a breach of the health protection regulations.

“It seems to be somewhat ironic that we would protest the avoidable and unnecessary death of an individual in the United States by risking unnecessary and avoidable deaths in Northern Ireland.”

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Assembly will show its support for Saturday’s day of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement by lighting Parliament Buildings yellow.

Stormont Speaker Alex Maskey described the initiative as a way of demonstrating solidarity which complies with the coronavirus regulations.

And Belfast’s Lord Mayor Frank McCoubrey has urged members of the public to adhere to public health advice and practise social distancing.

“I want to remind residents that although we have achieved so much throughout this pandemic, we cannot become complacent at this stage,” he said.

“If you are lucky enough to be visiting one of our parks this weekend, please ensure you and your family observe social distancing by not partaking in large group gatherings and remaining at least two metres apart from members of different households. This is still absolutely vital- even when outdoors.”

PA