Northern Ireland

Coronavirus: 'Between 60 and 70' fines at anti-racism protests

Protesters at the anti-racism demonstration in Belfast on Saturday Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Protesters at the anti-racism demonstration in Belfast on Saturday

Between 60 and 70 fines were issued to those attending anti-racism protests in NI at the weekend, a senior police officer has said.

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said the fines were issued in Londonderry and Belfast for breaches of coronavirus regulations.

The events were in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

MLAs Pat Sheehan and Gerry Carroll accused the police of inconsistency.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has called for fines issued to protestors to be dropped.

ACC Todd said he "absolutely" sympathised with the cause being protested.

"On any other day, this police service would be standing right beside the organisers to facilitate their protest and their right to have their voices heard about the unjustifiable and unnecessary death of George Floyd," he said.

Organisers have said efforts were made to maintain social distancing between those in attendance at the protests, which took place at Belfast's Custom House Square and the Guildhall in Derry.

Speaking to BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster programme, ACC Todd said in these circumstances social distancing would not have been possible.

Image caption ACC Todd said action taken by police could have prevented much larger numbers gathering for the weekend protests

He said a significant number of people were also "turned around" at transport centres in Northern Ireland and that fines were not imposed in those cases and no arrests were made.

He said had police not taken the action that they did, they "could reasonably have seen many thousands of people turn out".

ACC Todd said that a file had been passed to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) on the organisers of the event, but it was up to that body whether prosecution would be pursued.

'One law for shopping centres'

Sinn Fein's Pat Sheehan told BBC Northern Ireland's Inside Politics Q&A podcast that those taking part had been "fastidious" in the precautions taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll also told Inside Politics Q&A that he feels there is "one law for people going to shopping centres, furniture stores and the beach and another law for those attending important protests against racism".

Mr Carroll said Boris Johnson and the Westminster government could "use the justifiable anger of people coming out onto the streets to blame those people" for a potential coronavirus spike in the future.

The People Before Profit MLA argued that he believed government ineptitude throughout the health crisis had been a bigger factor.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he did not believe the protests should have taken place due to the pandemic.

"But I equally don't believe that it's in the public interest to be criminalising people for protesting against racism whatever my view on the individual tactic," he told BBC Radio Foyle's News at One.

"I think we are dealing with a very difficult situation around the pandemic, and we need to protect our frontline health workers from another spike, that is my clear view," he said.

The Foyle MP said he also believed there was an inconsistency in approach to breaches of coronavirus regulations.

"We see people queuing , we see people not socially distancing in different places and no action being taken," he added.

Call for clarity

Reginald Clarke, one of the speakers at the Belfast event, called for clarity on the criteria for fines being given.

He told Good Morning Ulster on Monday that he was given a fine while walking alone towards the protest area.

He said the event was held to show solidarity and participants "did what they could to address the medical concerns and still show support".

He said that there were social distance markings on the pavements and masks were being distributed.

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Efforts were made to maintain social distancing at events in Derry and Belfast

"Are you telling me I can't walk through that area because there might be a gathering?" he said.

"Either you give the ticket to everybody there or you don't give it to anyone."

Solicitor Ciaran Moynagh said his view of the gathering differed to that of the PSNI's.

"People attended, socially distanced and didn't meet a group larger than six in their own socially distant manner, it was no different from those people who attends the IKEA queue with their own family members," he said.

He said he would be contacting the police to discuss the possibility of having the fines voided.

'Lawful and peaceful protest'

About 40 of the fines issued were handed out in Derry.

Speaking to BBC Radio Foyle, Ch Supt Emma Bond said officers across the PSNI "fully support the right to protest and the cause which people were protesting but these are exceptional times".

She said "lawful and peaceful protest would be appropriate in any other circumstances other than this".

Image caption Ch Supt Emma Bond said the protests were taking place in "exceptional times"

"Because we are in the middle of a global pandemic, because the health protection regulations are in place and indicate that gatherings of more than six people are unlawful, that is why in these circumstances, police took the approach that they did," she said.

Justice Minister Naomi Long said she fully supported "people's right to protest" and that it "is a hugely important part of being part of a liberal society" and that she she also fully supports "the cause for which people were protesting on Saturday".

However, she added: "When it comes to whether or not large gatherings are appropriate during the coronavirus, the answer is simply no, because it places lives at risk."

Update 10 June 2020: This story has been updated for editorial reasons.

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