The chair of the body which represents rank and file police officers in Northern Ireland has condemned the placing of a banner naming a murdered police officer on a republican bonfire in Derry on Sunday as a "hate crime" which was "designed to intimidate."
The name of Constable Kerr, who was killed by dissident republicans in Omagh in 2011, was clearly visible on the side of the bonfire.
Threats to named individuals, including the PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne, were also displayed.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has said it is reviewing material obtained during its evidence-gathering operation and will now review this to establish if any offences occurred.
"The display of this material has been perceived as both offensive and distasteful," Chief Superintendent Darrin Jones said. "If any offences are detected, a full police investigation will be carried out."
Mark Lindsay of the Police Federation of Northern Ireland (PFNI) said attaching the names of Constable Ronan Kerr and other serving police officers on the bonfire was also "deeply insulting" to the police officer's memory and to "the vast majority of our society who support policing."
He said there was a “trend where bonfires on both sides of our community become vehicles for hate messages” and called on those in positions of responsibility to work to eradicate “this abhorrent practice.”
The burning of the banners on the bonfire, as well as other symbols including flags and poppy wreaths, has been widely condemned by politicians.
The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told the BBC the burning of such banners was “a hate crime, it is a criminal offence, and therefore it should not be tolerated.”
He said he had spoken out “very clearly when it came to bonfires around the Twelfth and said that it was wrong to engage in this kind of activity. I encouraged people not to desecrate flags and posters and symbols.
“Putting the name of a murdered PSNI officer, Ronan Kerr, on a bonfire and thinking of the harm, the hurt and the pain that causes to his family, it is absolutely dreadful.
“I would say to the police that we must have the lowest tolerance level of this kind of behavior.”
Displays of hatred
Sinn Féin MLA for Foyle, Karen Mullan, said the scenes witnessed at the bonfire were “disgraceful” and said it was “time these illegal bonfires which promote hatred come to an end once and for all.”
She said such “displays of sectarianism and hate have no place in our society and are not representative of the local community” and were “in stark contrast to the many excellent community events held throughout the area organised by the [recent] Gasyard Féile.”
The SDLP leader and Foyle MP Colum Eastwood described it as “disgusting” and said the bonfire-builders “don’t represent the people of Derry with that hatred.”
Derry Ulster Unionist councillor Darren Guy said the posters were an “absolute disgrace” and said “the question needs to be asked as to who is actually encouraging these youths to display such hate-filled banners?
“We have almost become desensitised to the burning of flags on bonfires,” he said. “Education is key to achieving respect for each other’s cultural traditions.
“As the burning embers slowly fade from this year’s bonfires we must begin to address these issues from now, not from June 2022.”
Poppy wreaths, Union and Israeli flags and British military insignia, including that of the British Army's Parachute Regiment, were also attached to the bonfire in Meenan Square in the Bogside before it was set alight on Sunday night.
Members of the Parachute Regiment were responsible for shooting dead 13 civil rights demonstrators on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972.
Similar flags and emblems were displayed on another bonfire in Derry’s Galliagh area on Sunday.
Bonfires are traditionally lit in nationalist areas of Derry on August 15th to mark the Catholic Feast of the Assumption.
Introduction of internment
The fires are also associated with the August anniversary of the introduction of internment without trial during the Troubles. This year the bonfire building happened on the same weekend that unionists and loyalists participated in the annual Apprentice Boys Relief of Derry commemorations.
Republican and loyalist bonfires continue to be a source of controversy in Northern Ireland.
Bonfire builders from both communities have provoked anger in the past by burning symbols associated with the other’s culture on the fires.
The PSNI said it was aware of a banner on the Bogside bonfire that was making threats against police officers and a member of the public.
Chief Supt Darrin Jones said: “The display of this material has been perceived as both offensive and distasteful.
“An evidence-gathering operation was in place during this incident and we will now review this to establish if any offences occurred. If any offences are detected, a full police investigation will be carried out.”
He urged anyone with information to come forward. – PA