Belfast Telegraph

Sinister graffiti appears after PSNI chief’s remark on putting paramilitaries’ children in care

The graffiti
The graffiti
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

Graffiti directed at the Chief Constable has been daubed on a wall in west Belfast days after he appeared to threaten parents with the removal of their children.

The message, written in capitals, reads: 'Simon Byrne take our kids we take yours'.

It has been described as "sinister and threatening" by Ulster Unionist Policing Board member Alan Chambers, a former policeman.

A PSNI spokeswoman said: "PSNI are aware of the graffiti."

West Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly called for it to be taken down, saying it was "despicable".

He said: "Any threat - and this can only be read as a threat - to children is abhorrent and I condemn it."

Father Martin Magill said the appearance of the retaliatory mural showed "the extent of feeling against his comments".

The priest added that he was "shocked by what the Chief Constable had to say".

He added: "I will support policing and I stand by my recent call for Catholic recruitment, but when the police get something wrong I believe in calling it out."

Mr Byrne has been facing a backlash over the comments he made during a conference in Belfast on Wednesday.

Simon Byrne
Simon Byrne
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly
Fr Martin Magill

He suggested that measures taken against paramilitaries could include seizure of their homes and cars, while their children could be taken into state care.

The following day he clarified that he had never intended to suggest young people be used as a weapon or pawn in the fight against paramilitarism.

Mr Byrne told the Policing Board on Thursday: "I would not want the message to go out that I am trying to hold the Sword of Damocles over parents."

Expressing his shock, Fr Magill told the Belfast Telegraph that the police chief's remarks were "far from helpful".

"Let's be very clear, children should not be used as weapons, nor are children assets," he said.

"The paramilitary crime taskforce talk about seizing property, cars and houses, for example, but it would be immoral to put children in the same bracket." In an interview with this newspaper this week, Fr Magill encouraged Catholics to take up a career in the PSNI to help redress the under-representation of that community in the police.

But the priest, who won widespread praise for his challenging address at the funeral of Lyra McKee, in which he effectively criticised Northern Ireland politicians for their lack of leadership, said Mr Byrne had got it wrong this time.

"Children are not weapons, or assets," he said. "It also raises the whole question of the traumatisation of children - that would be my big concern. Something like that would absolutely traumatise children."

Fr Magill noted that Mr Byrne's remarks, which provoked the graffiti in the Lenadoon area, came at the same time that plans were announced for 400 new neighbourhood police officers to be rolled out.

"At this stage the strength of feeling should be very, very clear and it's very important to find ways to address that and to find a way to calm those fears and bring down the level of anxiety," he said.

"What he said has obviously heightened tension and we need to find a way to bring down that tension. I'm concerned this has added fuel to the fire in sensitive communities.

"The whole question of policing is very sensitive. I'm very concerned and it's really important that we draw an end to this."

Describing himself as "a critical friend", Fr Magill (58) revealed that he himself had been criticised for speaking up about PSNI recruitment, adding "these remarks have not been helpful".

He suggested that Mr Byrne could put an end to the situation by taking positive action.

"The ball is in the Chief Constable's court at the moment," he added.

"We need clarity from him and maybe he needs to ask himself is it better to withdraw the comments completely."

Mr Kelly, who is Sinn Fein policing spokesman, said whoever is behind the graffiti "should be ashamed of themselves".

"Any threat to children is not only unacceptable, it's disgusting. It should not be happening," he said.

"My criticism over Simon Byrne was that when he said he would take away children as a deterrent it was not a safeguarding issue, it was an issue of using children as a threat to parents.

"I disagreed with what he said, I asked him to withdraw it. He didn't fully withdraw it but he withdrew a section of what he said in terms of the idea that they'd be used as pawns and as a deterrent and that was helpful."

Ulster Unionist policing spokesman Alan Chambers said he didn't support Sinn Fein's demand for the Chief Constable to withdraw his comments.

"I fully understood where the CC was coming from and I was completely satisfied with the clarification he gave," he said.

"I would have thought that all right thinking people would recognise just what the chief constable was implying with his recent remarks, especially after his subsequent clarification.

"Anything that makes a terrorist understand that their actions will carry far reaching consequences has to be welcomed."

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