The PSNI has broken records for self-inflicted damage in recent days.
Mark Sykes, a victim of the UDA’s Sean Graham attack, arrested at the spot where he once nearly lost his life. Handcuffed and marched away when all he’d been carrying was a bunch of flowers.
Just 72 hours earlier, dozens of masked UVF men wandered freely through Pitt Park in east Belfast with not a single arrest made.
The police’s enemies couldn’t have produced a better script if they’d hired a top Hollywood writer.
How many months and years does this set back the force’s credibility in areas where it desperately needs buy-in?
How many young Catholics does Simon Byrne think Friday’s images will have helped recruit?
Notably, there was no queue of unionist politicians weighing in to support the police on this one. They know the PSNI has shot itself in the foot.
I wholeheartedly support Covid regulations, but here’s the deal: they need to be enforced across the spectrum, without fear or favour.
Having failed to intervene during breaches at the funerals of IRA men Bobby Storey and Eamon McCourt, the police would have had no authority to move when the same happened at the funeral of UVF man Hugh ‘Boot’ Hill nine days ago. Pitt Park was entirely different. Unlike the funerals, these were sinister scenes. There had been a plan to attack a home.
The PSNI may well not have moved to detain the men for operational reasons, and that may have been the right call, but the differences between the east Belfast footage and the footage from outside the bookies are striking.
In Pitt Park, the officers appear relaxed and unflustered. In the lower Ormeau, there is a vigorous approach when there should have been caution and sensitivity.
This was not a commemoration for members of a paramilitary group. It was one for innocent victims — five people, including a pensioner and a 15-year-old child — murdered in cold blood.
If the PSNI had concerns that too many attended the short service, it was inappropriate to raise them in a heavy-handed manner just as the event ended. This hadn’t been an occasion of big fiery political speeches. It was one of quiet remembrance and prayer.
To make matters much, much worse, Sean Graham’s wasn’t a clear-cut UDA attack. There are extensive allegations of collusion.
The Historical Enquiries Team found that a Browning pistol used by the gunmen had been given to the RUC by agent William Stobie and later handed back to the paramilitary group.
There were many other disturbing elements to the shooting. In 2015, it emerged that an assault rifle used by the killers, which was meant to have been destroyed, had been put on display in the Imperial War Museum in London.
It was against this backdrop that officers waded into the commemoration on Friday.
The chief constable’s initial response was wholly inadequate and while his apology last night and suspension of one officer doesn’t resolve the situation it is a move in the right direction.
It wasn’t just the usual suspects calling the PSNI out. Innocent Victims United spokesman Kenny Donaldson described the intervention, at an
event where it appeared the numbers
attending were limited, PPE was worn and social distancing observed, as baffling.
Loyalist Jamie Bryson described the incident as appalling and said he felt angry watching it.
While it’s far from just the usual suspects up in arms, Sinn Fein is particularly vocal given that Friday’s incident has so upset its base.
A year ago this week, the party attended a PSNI recruitment drive. Michelle O’Neill stood beside Simon Byrne holding a poster promoting the police as a career. It was a highly symbolic appeal.
How many young people from republican areas will be listening after last week’s events is an entirely different matter.