The Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable has said he accepts the findings of a court that quashed the actions taken against two police officers over an incident at a Troubles memorial event in Belfast.
Simon Byrne said that the issue related to “a legal error” in how action was taken against the officers, and said the judgment would be carefully considered to ensure that “any lessons are learnt”.
A police representative group said that “injustice has been corrected” after a High Court judge on Tuesday quashed the actions taken in relation to the two police officers.
The Police Federation for Northern Ireland (PFNI) was speaking after Mr Justice Scoffield said the action was taken to allay any threat of Sinn Fein abandoning its support for policing in Northern Ireland.
He quashed decisions to suspend one probationary constable and reposition his colleague following a “wide-ranging” judicial review challenge brought by the two officers.
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The ruling has prompted further criticism of Mr Byrne, who is already under pressure following revelations of data breaches this month.
Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie is asking for an urgent meeting with Mr Byrne, while TUV leader Jim Allister said the Chief Constable should resign.
The officers faced action in 2021 following the arrest of Mark Sykes, a survivor of a loyalist gun attack on the Sean Graham bookmakers shop in south Belfast in 1992.
The controversial incident unfolded when police challenged those attending a memorial event amid suspicions the size of the public gathering breached coronavirus regulations.
The participants were paying respects to those who died when gunmen from the Ulster Freedom Fighters opened fire inside the bookmakers, killing five people and injuring nine.
Mr Sykes, who was shot several times in the terrorist outrage, was handcuffed and arrested in chaotic exchanges captured on social media.
The incident triggered a major controversy at the time, and sparked criticism of Mr Byrne.
Mr Byrne apologised for the PSNI’s handling of the event.
One of the officers was suspended and the other was moved to another role.
In a statement in response to the court’s findings on Tuesday, Mr Byrne said the incident was “difficult for everyone”.
“Those paying their respects at a memorial event, the young officers who attended on behalf of the Police Service and for the public who observed the footage of an incident which happened shortly afterwards which circulated across media platforms.”
He added: “As Chief Constable, I accept the findings of the court.
“In particular that there was a legal error in the way in which the public interest test was applied in deciding to suspend one officer and reposition another, rendering the action unlawful.
“It is important however to clarify that neither officer has been disciplined to date. This judgment relates to the decision to suspend one officer and reposition another whilst the Police Ombudsman conducted an investigation following a public complaint.
“We will of course take time to carefully consider the full judgment to ensure any lessons are learnt to prevent any future recurrence.”
The Police Ombudsman, which investigates allegations of misconduct and criminal conduct by police officers, looked into the incident after receiving a complaint from Mr Sykes and subsequently sent an evidence file to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) for consideration.
The PPS decided not to prosecute the officers.
The PFNI, which represents rank and file officers, backed the officers in their judicial review of the lawfulness of the actions.
The court heard of a “frenzy of activity” following the incident at the memorial event, which included a Deputy Chief Constable receiving a call from Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly, who speaks for the party on policing issues.
It also heard of fears that Sinn Fein could leave the Policing Board over the matter, and that the Chief Constable had been informed by Sinn Fein that there was a risk support for policing would be withdrawn unless action was taken in respect of the officers.
At that time, then-deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill tweeted about “double standards” in the PSNI, in reference to an incident in East Belfast in 2021 when a large gathering of masked loyalists were not challenged by police at the time, the week before.
In his judgment issued on Tuesday, Mr Justice Scoffield concluded: “I have been persuaded that the respondent imposed suspension in the first applicant’s case because of the threat (whether real or perceived) that, if it did not do so, republican support for policing would be withdrawn.
“To reach a decision on that basis was in my view unlawful.”
The judge quashed the decision to suspend the first officer and reposition the second officer.
“I consider the applicants are entitled to a form of relief which removes those decisions from their records as a matter of law,” he found.
Reacting, the PFNI said “serious questions have to be asked of the decision-making of the PSNI’s Senior Executive Team” following the judgment.
PFNI chair, Liam Kelly, said an “injustice has been corrected”.
He claimed initial actions taken by the PSNI against the two officers were “high-handed, unwarranted and excessive”.
“There was a head-long rush by the Chief Constable to apologise for what took place when the officers, in fact, were simply doing their duty by enforcing Covid regulations,” he said.
“They’d received the all-clear to intervene in the gathering, but yet they were the only two singled out for disciplinary measures.
“In our view, this High Court judgment calls into question the decision-making of the Senior Executive Team right up to and including the Deputy Chief Constable and the Chief Constable himself.”
Mr Kelly claimed the officers were “sacrificed on the altar of political expediency in a disgraceful attempt to pander to political pressure”.
He said one of the officers is still in the midst of a disciplinary process and, urged the PSNI expedite the matter.