Policing in Northern Ireland has never been more 'toxic' and 'politicised'

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Thousands lined the streets in west Belfast last June for the funeral of republican Bobby Storey

by Q Radio News and David Young, PA

Policing has never been more "politicised" or "toxic'' in Northern Ireland. 

That's according to the chairman of the Police Federation NI, who says he isn't surprised by the PPS' decision, not to prosecute anyone for attending the funeral of Bobby Storey last June.

His comments come amid calls by unionist politicians for the PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne to stand down.

Mark Lindsay thinks there are a lot of different factors at play which do not all relate to the PSNI or its leadership.

He also feels policing is often "caught in the middle" of political matters.

"Over the past few months policing has very much been at the fore of political debating. 

"We had the incident on the Ormeau Road which faced severe criticism from the nationalist side of the house and now we have the decision by the PPS not to prosecute in relation to the funeral, from the unionist side of the house. 

"Policing is always caught in the middle, has always been caught in the middle in Northern Ireland. 

"23 years on from Good Friday, that's obviously the most disappointing thing for me, that our officers are left polarised from one side if the community or the other."

Yesterday MLAs passed a motion censuring Sinn Fein at Stormont because 24 of elected members including Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill were among the 2,000 strong crowd. 

Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionist Party leader has questioned the independence of a police inspectorate review of the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s handling of a large republican funeral during the pandemic.

Steve Aiken likened the probe by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) to “marking the police service’s own homework”.

Mr Aiken’s comments came after he became the latest unionist political leader to call for the resignation of PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne over how it dealt with the Bobby Storey funeral.

Explaining why he was calling for Mr Byrne to go before the HMIC report was published, Mr Aiken said the exercise would not make “any difference”.

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken alongside party colleague Doug Beattie 

Unionist demands for the resignation of the chief constable have come after prosecutors cited police engagement with funeral organisers as one reason why they opted not to prosecute 24 Sinn Fein politicians who attended the large scale event in west Belfast last June.

The funeral saw about 2,000 mourners line the streets at a time when strict Covid-19 regulations were in place, prompting claims that Sinn Fein had flouted rules it was involved in creating.

Explaining why any prosecution of Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and her 23 party colleagues would likely fail, Director of Public Prosecutions Stephen Herron also cited the repeatedly changing and incoherent nature of Stormont’s coronavirus regulations.

On Thursday, amid intensifying pressure on Mr Byrne, it was announced that the HMIC would be reviewing the PSNI’s handling of the events around the funeral.

Mr Aiken called for Mr Byrne to quit on Thursday night, two days after the PPS non-prosecution rationale was outlined.

PSNI Chief Constable SImon Byrne has rejected calls to stand down

His move came after the DUP, the Traditional Unionist Voice party and the Progressive Unionist Party had also called for the chief constable to resign.

Asked in an interview with BBC Radio Ulster on Friday why he was not reserving his opinion until the HMIC concluded its investigations, Mr Aiken said:

“The confidence in the community has been lost now. It’s not going to be restored by her Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary report.

“The concern will have to be that HMIC will come in and do a report and in many cases it will be marking the police service’s own homework.”

Mr Aiken conceded he did not know if the police engagement with the organisers ahead of the funeral involved warnings that Covid-19 regulations needed to be observed.

Mr Byrne has vowed not to quit. He has insisted that police engagement with the organisers of events that have the potential to attract significant crowds is “common practice”.

On Wednesday, the PPS announced a review of its non-prosecution decisions for the 24 Sinn Fein politicians.

The PPS said the move was in line with procedures and came in response to a number of requests.

The review will be carried out by a senior PPS lawyer with the assistance of an independent senior counsel, neither of whom were involved in the original decision-making process.

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