Northern Ireland: Special Police Ombudsman report on policing of protest during the pandemic

The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has argued in a special report that although the different police approach to Black Lives Matter and "Protect Our Monuments" protests in summer this year was unfair, the approach was not motivated by racism. However, the Ombudsman's explanation for the differential treatment of the protests may not convince everybody.

The Ombudsman's report concerns the policing of two Black Lives Matter protests (in Belfast and Derry) on 6 June and a "Protect Our Monuments" protest in Belfast on 13 June.

The Ombudsman concludes:

"It is my view that the overriding police objective for the 6th June 2020 ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests was to have the events cancelled rather than ensuring the protests were policed proportionately. This is clearly reflected in the Criminal Justice Strategy, and early interventions with organisers; some of whom decided to cancel events outside Belfast and Derry/Londonderry...

In contrast to 6th June 2020, the Gold Commander considerations for the ‘Protect our Monuments’ protest evidenced greater regard for the protester’s Convention rights. It is my view that the policing approach on the day, was to encourage the protest to proceed in a COVID compliant manner, as opposed to seeking cancellation of the event. This approach was, however, inconsistent with the Criminal Justice Strategy which stated that engagement with organisers should focus on efforts to cancel the protest."

Although this differential treatment was unfair, says the Ombudsman, it was "not intentional," nor was it based "on race or ethnicity of those who attended the event. Rather PSNI [the Police Service of Northern Ireland] failed to balance Human Rights with the public health considerations and requirements of the Regulations."

Of course, this conclusion merely begs the question of why the PSNI failed to carry out that balancing act correctly. The Ombudsman does not consider this point, but does note that:

"Confidence in policing of some within the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities of Northern Ireland has been severely damaged by the PSNI’s policing of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests."

The report makes four recommendations to the PSNI:

  • the PSNI consider adopting a Human Rights Based Approach to policing of protests based on the four principles; Participation, Empowerment, Equality and Non-Discrimination and Accountability.
  • the PSNI develop human rights based assessments evidencing the identification of relevant rights, balancing competing rights and risks to include appropriate measures to address PSNI’s obligations and mitigate the identified risks.
  • the PSNI review the enforcement Notices issued on 6th June 2020, acknowledge errors and commit to redress for those individuals affected.
  • the Chief Constable periodically reports to the Northern Ireland Policing Board on progress in his public commitment to commissioning strategic engagement with the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities of Northern Ireland.

See: Watchdog concludes police treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters was unfair but not racist (Irish Legal News, link)

Full report: Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland: An investigation into police policy and practice of protests in Northern Ireland (22 December 2020, pdf)


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