Northern Ireland

Coronavirus: Lockdown rules 'undermined by BLM protest policing'

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

The credibility of lockdown regulations has been undermined by police inaction at recent Black Lives Matter protests, the chair of Stormont's Justice Committee has said.

DUP MLA Paul Givan accused the police of facilitating a rally outside Belfast City Hall on 3 June.

He said this led to the further protests, which took place in Belfast and Londonderry over the weekend.

The protests followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Mr Floyd died last month after a white police officer held a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Four police officers have been sacked and charged over his death.

Mr Givan said the attitude of the police in not enforcing the Covid rules will leave the public to take their own decisions in the future by exercising their own best judgment regarding their conduct.

Justice Minister Naomi Long told assembly members she did not accept Mr Givan's analysis.

Image copyright NI Assembly
Image caption DUP MLA Paul Givan criticised the police response to last week's protest

Mrs Long told Mr Givan that many of the exceptions that had now been applied to the coronavirus regulations had been requested and pre-emptively announced by his DUP colleague, Environment Minister Edwin Poots.

Mrs Long said once politicians requested people should have more freedoms to travel it was always going to be more difficult for the police to enforce the regulations.

She added that the proper channel for scrutinising operational police decisions was via the Policing Board or the Police Ombudsman.

The minister told MLAs she had only agreed to answer an urgent question because it had been passed to her late via the Executive Office and it would have been discourteous for her not to appear in the chamber.

Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd said the police could not be expected to adopt one approach to a gathering or funeral they disagree with then ignore another gathering with which they have sympathy.

Image caption Naomi Long says the chair of the justice committee crossed the line between "the expression of legitimate political opinion and misleading the Assembly"

Mr O'Dowd said the key is that the police have to be fair transparent and impartial.

Matthew O'Toole, of the SDLP, asked about a late change made on Friday evening to some of the enforcement powers associated with the coronavirus regulations.

Mr O'Toole said lawful protest should be allowed as much as purchasing garden furniture.

Mrs Long explained that the changes made last Friday night had in fact been announced 10 to 15 days previously and amounted to a relaxation enabling outside gatherings of six people rather than just two.

So, the justice minister argued, those who protested at the weekend had not been disadvantaged by the alterations.

Twitter profile

TUV leader Jim Allister asked the minister why she had changed her Twitter profile to carry the logo of the Black Lives Matter campaign given one of their demands has been to "defund the police".

Mr Allister also accused the commission, which manages the assembly buildings, of a "duplicitous move" in agreeing to light up Stormont in support of Black Lives Matter but not in respect of innocent victims of terrorism.

Mrs Long said it was unfortunate that when such serious events took place in other countries some always trying to return "to trying to make this about ourselves".

She said that all lives will not matter until Black Lives Matter.

People Before Profit's Gerry Carroll told MLAs he was deeply concerned about the PSNI actions during the rallies on Saturday.

Mr Carroll wondered how the minister could stand over her assessment that the police response had been proportionate.

Mrs Long said that overall she believed the police had behaved in a proportionate manner, but as she was not present at the rallies she was not talking about individual operational decisions nor would it be right for her to do so.

The minister said that, unlike the USA, there is a clear divide in Northern Ireland between policing and politics, which she regards as important.

Mrs Long said she had talked to black and ethnic minority people about their concerns and in any normal time she would have been with them but, given the health crisis, these times are not normal.

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