No prosecutions over Black Lives Matter protests in Belfast and Derry

PPS says there is ‘no reasonable prospect of conviction’ of any of 14 people investigated

People take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in Custom House Square, Belfast last year. File photograph: Rebecca Black/PA Wire

People take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in Custom House Square, Belfast last year. File photograph: Rebecca Black/PA Wire

 

Fourteen people investigated by police following Black Lives Matter protests in Belfast and Derry last year will not face prosecution.

The North’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) announced on Wednesday that it had decided not to prosecute anyone in relation to the protests in June 2020.

The assistant director of the PPS, Martin Hardy, said there was “no reasonable prospect of conviction for any offence.”

This was on the basis that the evidence “would allow the suspects to successfully raise the statutory defence of reasonable excuse,” he said. In these circumstances “the Test for Prosecution was not met.”

The PSNI’s Deputy Chief Constable, Mark Hamilton, said the Chief Constable had apologised “for the anger, upset and frustration caused by our policing operation, and I would like to repeat that apology today”.

The 14 individuals were reported to the PPS by the PSNI for consideration of potential offences under the Covid-19 regulations in force at the time, which banned large public gatherings.

They included three people reported in connection with a protest outside Belfast City Hall on June 3rd, seven reported regarding a protest at Custom House Square in Belfast on June 6th and one further individual reported in connection with both protests.

Three individuals were reported in connection with a protest in Guildhall Square, Derry on June 6th.

Outlining the reasons for the PPS’s decision, Mr Hardy said the factors considered by prosecutors included “the fact that the gatherings involved protests relating to a matter of important social concern, were peaceful and were organised in a manner that sought to minimise any risk of transmission of the virus.”

He also said there were provisions within the Covid-19 regulations which “created, in certain respects, a lack of legal clarity as regards what activity would be lawful” and cited “issues in relation to the proportionality and consistency of the policing approach to different protests.”

Important social issue

The conclusion reached by prosecutors “in relation to these 14 individuals – who were seeking to safely exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression on an important social issue – is that there is no prospect of conviction in relation to any offence,” he said.

Dept Chief Constable Hamilton said he acknowledged the PPS’s decision and said that while the PSNI’s involvement in policing the Black Lives Matter protests had recently been reviewed by the Police Ombudsman and the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and while a further Ombudsman investigation was ongoing, “it is already clear that our response unintentionally damaged the confidence and trust of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Community.”

In December, the Police Ombudsman found that claims police handling of the protests were unfair and discriminatory were justified, but in her view this was not intentional and was not based on the race of ethnicity of those who attended the protests.

Dept Chief Constable Hamilton said the PPS’s decision underlined “yet again the difficulties we faced attempting to police during this period.

“Against the backdrop of an unprecedented health crisis and rapidly changing, ambiguous legislation, our objective has always been to help slow the spread of the virus to keep people safe.

“Balancing this against our obligation to safeguard other important rights – such as that to peacefully protest – has not been easy or comfortable. We have not always got that balance right.”

He said police were “working to implement the lessons learned from this period and are reaching out to those communities with whom we have lost trust”, which included the establishment of a Community Relations Taskforce.

“We will now take time to consider the implications of the decision by the PPS and will engage with the relevant stakeholders in due course,” he said.

Black Lives Matter protesters hailed the decision as a vindication and said the attempted prosecutions should never have been brought.

“Today’s decision vindicates us,” said demonstrator Cuthbert Tura Arutura. “What today represents for the Black Lives Matter movement is that we were right all along . . . the way we were treated by the politicians, the way we were treated by the police wasn’t fair, it was discriminatory.

“We were treated differently from all other settled communities . . . this hostile environment towards people of colour has to stop,” he said.

Solicitor Darragh Mackin, who represented several of the protesters, said PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne should apologise individually to all 14 people involved.

“Today is a decision that vindicates not only our clients, but the right to protest more generally,” he said.

“I think it’s incumbent upon the Chief Constable to immediately apologise to each individual who’s been put through almost a year of torment for simply exercising their very, very basic fundamental right to protest.

“As we’ve said all along, they never should have been fined, nobody should have been interviewed and today is a vindication of that position.” Additional reporting – PA.