Investigation launched after Troubles victim arrested at anniversary event

Michelle Devane and David Young, PA

A police watchdog has launched an investigation after the victim of a Troubles shooting was arrested at an anniversary event.

Mark Sykes was detained in the Ormeau Road area of Belfast after officers intervened at the memorial marking the 29th anniversary of a loyalist massacre at Sean Graham’s bookmakers shop, his lawyer said.

The Police Ombudsman’s Office said officers were involved in an “altercation” with a group of people who had gathered at an event to mark the anniversary and one person had been arrested.

A spokesman for the Police Ombudsman’s Office said:  “We are aware of the incident and have received a complaint about what happened.

“Our investigation will focus on establishing all of the facts surrounding the incident and investigators will be examining all available evidence in order to consider the appropriateness of the actions taken by police, including the arrest.”

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne appealed for calm following the incident.

Mr Byrne said: “I fully recognise the sensitivities of this incident and just how difficult a day this would have already been for the families who lost loved ones in the atrocity.

“That should not be forgotten.

“We are acutely aware that this is the latest incident to raise concerns about the enforcement of coronavirus regulations and illustrates there are no easy answers,” he added.

Mr Byrne said officers came across a group of between 30 and 40 people gathered at a memorial event on the Ormeau Road at 2.30pm on Friday and that as the event concluded, two officers approached a person to talk to him about a breach of the Health Protection Regulations.

“The situation quickly escalated and a man was arrested for disorderly behaviour and resisting arrest.”

He was later released.

In the course of the incident a police officer sustained a minor injury to his face.

Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has described the PSNI’s response to the arrest of a Troubles victim at a anniversary event as “inadequate and insulting”.

She called for an urgent meeting with the Chief Constable to discuss what she described as the “awful scenes” in Belfast on Friday.

Ms O’Neill said: “The PSNI’s response tonight to the incident at a wreath laying for the anniversary of the Sean Graham’s Bookies Massacre is inadequate and insulting.

“This standard of policing is unacceptable and I have requested an urgent meeting with the Chief Constable.”

Justice Minister Naomi Long called for calm and cool heads to prevail following the arrest.

She said it was always going to be a “painful and difficult day” for the survivors and the families of those murdered at Sean Graham’s bookmakers.

“I understand why the events this afternoon have left emotions running high,” she said.

“However, we now need calm and cool heads to prevail.”

She said funerals and memorials are particularly sensitive when it comes to enforcement of the Coronavirus regulations and she appealed for everyone to work together to get through these challenges during the pandemic.

Five people, including a 15-year-old boy, were murdered and several others injured in February 1992 when Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) opened fire at the bookies.

Footage of angry exchanges involving officers and those attending Friday’s event have been posted online.

Public gatherings of more than six people are currently prevented under Covid-19 lockdown regulations in Northern Ireland.

Mr Sykes’ lawyer Niall Murphy said: “Every year the victims and survivors gather in dignity to remember their loved ones and to say a short prayer.

“This year because of Covid restrictions it was restricted to the five families who maintained a dignified silence and left flowers down.

“The police attended, for what reason I will never know, approached victims and survivors of an atrocity and commenced to harass, push and assault man, woman and child.”

“The only disorderly behaviour that happened on the Ormeau Road today was by the police who had no right to be there and who have wreaked havoc on community relations both in the Ormeau Road and in the wider community,” he said.

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