Amidst all of the touchy-feely mainstream news media tributes to the different branches of the public service in this Time of the Virus, it would seem that some find it difficult to abandon old ways.
While the Gardaí have attracted mixed reviews for their Dancing Against the Pandemic – as opposed to their removing people from the vicinity of beaches and graveyards – their colleagues on the Police Service of Northern Ireland have been rather more retro.
On February 2, 1992 five Catholic men were shot dead at a Sean Graham bookmakers office on the Lower Ormeau Road in South Belfast. The plaque commemorating them on Hatfield Street states that they were “murdered for their faith.” That they were Catholics was the sole criterion their assassins required to be fulfilled.
The attack came at a particularly awful period in the armed conflict and the seeming degeneration of it into escalating and pointless slaughter was undoubtedly a key factor in bringing about the ceasefires two years later. Whatever about the settlement that followed, stopping the conflict was the correct thing to do.
The fact that loyalists insisted for several years on parading past the scene, and taunting of local people about the murders, is an enduring legacy of that time. Since the ceasefires the annual commemoration organised by relatives of the murdered men has been conducted with dignity and with peace.
Until last Friday that is. Despite the statement by the Lower Ormeau Residents Group that the families of those who were killed had come to an arrangement with the PSNI regarding how the event might take place given the current restrictions due to Covid, members of the police force appeared to have taken a different view.
The families said that on the anniversary of the killings each year they gathered “in dignity to remember their loved ones and to say a short prayer.” They added that “this year because of Covid restrictions it was restricted to the five families, who maintained a dignified silence and left flowers down.”
They said that the police “attended, approached victims and survivors of an atrocity and commenced to harass, push and assault man, woman and child.”
Whether it was sanctioned or not, several members of the force can be seen on video engaged in needlessly aggressive behaviour. Or at least you could have seen that until Facebook decided that the content was not suitable for viewing and took the some of the videos down.
One of the things that can be seen on the videos that remain up is the deliberate targeting of Mark Sykes, who was pursued by one particular officer and then arrested, apparently for “disorderly conduct,” There would not seem to be much evidence of that on film. Sykes was himself wounded in the attack on the bookmakers in1992. His arrest, at a commemoration, has caused considerable distress and upset.
Not surprisingly the incident and the arrest provoked an angry response, and the Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister demanded a meeting with the Chief Constable Simon Byrne. Byrne’s response was to point to the “concerns about the enforcement of conronavirus regulations.”
Strangely, as with the double standards applied this side of the border, the PSNI seemed to have no issue with a UVF party which took part in the intimidation of east Belfast people from their homes days prior to that.
That there may be more to all of this than random cops losing their head, would appear to be supported by another incident last week. That took place when the home of 85-year-old Rita McKernan in Turf Lodge was surrounded by police officers as her body was waked. The funeral cortege was also harassed as it made its way to Milltown Cemetery on the Falls Road.
The McKernan family are well known to be associated with the Irish Republican Socialist Party, and the policing of this and other funerals, as well as what took place on the Ormeau Road have led some to question what exact influence Sinn Féin has as part of the Stormont Executive to which the PSNI is supposedly accountable.
With tensions rising in the midst of the fallout from Brexit and the inept handling by the EU Commission of its own “understandings”, the PSNI certainly ought not to be perceived as contributing to all of that. Even if it is a case that some people given the authority of the state are in their element now with the myriad excuses to push people about, even at sensitive times like funerals and commemorations of murder victims.
Armed, as it happened in the case of the UDA who carried out the Ormeau Road attack, by agents of the state.