Many police forces have struggled to enforce coronavirus restrictions during the pandemic without causing conflict with large sections of the population. The reports of weddings, baptisms, and other social events being disrupted, which were unimaginable just a year before, have led to concern about police overreach.
This problem is not new in Northern Ireland. During the conflict years, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the police force) was closely associated with the British government. It had a good relationship with the unionists, a majority of whom were Protestants. However, it was a very fractious relationship with nationalists who were a majority Catholic. The situation was made worse by cases of unfair treatment.
The aim of the post-conflict reform of police in Northern Ireland is to remedy this. The force was renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and more Catholics were recruited. The goal was to gain support from all groups for the new party. Too little or too many changes is still a matter of debate.
Before the pandemic, many working-class communities felt that the PSNI unfairly targeted them in terms of policing protests and yet received a substandard level of service when it comes to investigating crimes and anti-social behavior.
In the North of Ireland, police work is as much influenced by what is happening in other areas and communities as it is by what is going on in your own. The PSNI’s handling of the pandemic has been constantly scrutinized. The “hard-to reach” communities who have a history of a bad relationship with the police have closely watched every move or inaction the police have made.
In Northern Ireland, restrictions have been imposed on social gatherings such as weddings and funerals since March 2020. The fact that police have acted in certain situations but not others has led to new claims of underpolicing or overpolicing.
The PSNI is accused of failing to prevent large gatherings during a number of high-profile funerals, both in Irish republican communities and Ulster loyalists. The complaints that some grieving family members were above the law, while others were not soon followed.
The decision to fine protesters who participated in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations but not those who gathered in Belfast to “protect” statues was also heavily criticized.
Two more incidents in recent months have led to even greater tension.
First, video footage showed PSNI officers failing in their duty to prevent dozens of loyalists wearing masks from taking to the streets of East Belfast to settle a local dispute.
As soon as PSNI officers failed to arrest anyone who violated public safety regulations related to coronavirus, claims quickly arose that the PSNI had disregarded what appeared to be loyalist paramilitary activities. The force was still reeling after the criticisms of its handling of this incident. By the end of that same week, the situation had gotten worse.
A group of people gathered to lay a wreath in a bookmaker shop on Ormeau Road, where loyalist gunmen shot five customers 29 years earlier. The exact number of people involved in the event and whether it violated COVID regulations are unclear. As the event was coming to an end, PSNI officers intervened. As things escalated, they arrested one attendee. It turned out that the attendee was also a survivor of the 1992 attack who lost his brother-in-law.
Simon Byrne, PSNI’s chief constable, was forced to issue a Saturday evening apology after footage of the arrest appeared on social media. This has not tempered the PSNI’s actions.
Loss of trust
The arrest has not only left a bad taste in victims’ and survivors’ mouths, but it has also irreparably damaged PSNI efforts to reach out to the excluded working-class nationalist communities with the hope of increasing their legitimacy.
Signs are posted on the hillside of Belfast that read ‘PSNI Out.’ PA
The force is trying to recruit from these communities to represent the area they police better. The PSNI’s actions during the pandemic will not encourage recruits and could, therefore, set back the progress made towards solving this long-standing problem.
A post-fact apology does little to convince a skeptical audience. As they say, seeing is believing. What “hard-to reach” communities saw during the pandemic only confirmed, not challenged, their misgivings towards the PSNI.