Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill has insisted she never threatened to withdraw her party’s support for policing following an arrest at a Troubles commemoration event in 2021.
The controversy over the event contributed to the resignation of Simon Byrne as PSNI chief constable this month after a High Court judge ruled that two junior officers had been unlawfully disciplined for their actions.
The judge said they had been disciplined to allay a threat that Sinn Fein could withdraw its support for policing.
Speaking for the first time about the controversy during her attendance at an investment summit in Belfast, Ms O’Neill said her party was unequivocal in its support for policing.
Asked if she had threatened to pull her party from the Policing Board, she responded: “No, it did not happen.
“Let me be crystal clear about what I said to the chief constable.
“I was very clear that the incident that happened that day was wrong; it was appalling and the real victim in that scenario was Mark Sykes.
“This was somebody who was the victim of a horrible atrocity many years ago and the way he was treated was appalling.
“I made that very clear publicly at the time and privately to the chief constable in terms of the damage that that type of activity did to community confidence.”
She added: “But never did I ever threaten to withdraw Sinn Fein support for policing, that is unequivocal in terms of our support for the rule of law.”
The incident which the High Court ruled on occurred on the Ormeau Road in Belfast in February 2021 during a service marking the anniversary of the February 1992 Sean Graham bookmakers attack, in which five people were murdered.
The two officers faced action in 2021 after the arrest of Mr Sykes, a survivor of a loyalist gun attack on the bookmakers in south Belfast.
The incident unfolded when police challenged people attending a memorial event amid suspicions that the size of the public gathering breached coronavirus regulations.
Mr Sykes was handcuffed and arrested in chaotic exchanges captured on social media.
The incident triggered a major controversy at the time and sparked criticism of Mr Byrne.
However, DUP Policing Board member Trevor Clarke said Ms O’Neill’s comments were at odds with with the account of a senior PSNI member as detailed in Mr Justice Scoffield’s High Court ruling.
He said: “Did Michelle O’Neill press for disciplinary action against the two officers involved?
“Ultimately, Sinn Fein need to explain why high-ranking members of the police service believed Michelle O’Neill’s representations amounted to an ultimatum in respect of ongoing support for policing.
“We will not be stopping until the full detail of this sorry episode is laid out clearly for the public to see who said what and when.”
Following the High Court ruling, Mr Byrne initially rejected calls to quit but later resigned after the Police Federation indicated it would call for a vote of no confidence.
The federation has since passed a vote of no confidence in deputy chief constable Mark Hamilton, who is currently leading the police force.
The High Court controversy occurred just weeks after the PSNI faced heavy criticism when a major data leak mistakenly released the names and details of all serving officers and staff members online.
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