No prosecutions recommended by PPS over Black Lives Matter protests in NI

The Public Prosecution Service has announced no one will be prosecuted in connection with attending Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in June 2020.

A total of 14 suspects were reported to the PPS by the PSNI for potential offences under coronavirus regulations at one or more of the BLM protests held in Londonderry and Belfast last summer.

The PPS examined three separate protests - one outside Belfast City Hall on 3 June, one at Custom House Square in the city on 6 June, and another similar protest in Guildhall Square in Derry on the same date.

The protests were just some of the many that happened across the world following the murder of George Floyd while he was in police custody.

Protestors at Guildhall Square in Derry in June 2020. Credit: UTV

After consideration of all evidence reported by the PSNI, the PPS concluded that the Test for Prosecution was not met in respect of any suspect on evidential grounds.

Assistant Director Martin Hardy said: “Decision-making on this file included consideration of a range of complex and novel legal issues arising from the Coronavirus Regulations in place at the time of these protests and relevant human rights considerations.

"It also involved a careful analysis of the particular circumstances of these protests and the conduct of the individuals reported.

“It was concluded that, in respect of each of the 14 individuals reported, there was no reasonable prospect of conviction for any offence."

A Black Lives Matter rally in Belfast. Credit: UTV

Mr Hardy added: "This was on the basis that the evidence would allow the suspects to successfully raise the statutory defence of reasonable excuse. In these circumstances, the Test for Prosecution was not met."

The PPS cited a number of factors relevant to the reasonable excuse defence including the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the European Convention of Human Rights.

It also said the protests related to a matter of "important social concern, were peaceful and were organised in a manner that sought to minimise any transmission of the virus".

In particular, the PPS mentioned that social distancing was encouraged through stewards and the marking of chalk squares, along with regular loud speaker announcements.

Protestors were also encouraged to attend in smaller groups of no more than six and masks and hand sanitiser were also made available.

A protestor wears a mask at a rally in Belfast. Credit: Pacemaker

The PPS also said there was a "lack of clarity as regards what activity would be lawful" in relation to the regulations that were in place at the time.

It also said there were issues in relation to "the proportionality and consistency of the policing approach to different protests", as set out in a report published by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.

Commenting further about the PPS decision, Mr Hardy added: “The PPS can only bring a case before a court when, after a thorough consideration of all relevant matters, it is concluded that the evidence provides a reasonable prospect of conviction.

“The conclusion reached 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.”

The PPS decision on the BLM protests follows another decision taken by the PPS in March 2021 not to prosecute anyone for attending the funeral of Bobby Storey during the pandemic.

The PSNI also gave its reaction to the decision from the PPS on the BLM protests.

Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said: "Our involvement in policing these events has recently been reviewed by the Police Ombudsman and the NI Policing Board.

"The Chief Constable has apologised for the anger, upset and frustration caused by our policing operation, and I would like to repeat that apology today.

"It is now over a year since the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide protests that followed, but we are still conscious of the deep hurt felt by members of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Community."

"The PPS decision underlines yet again the difficulties we faced attempting to police during this period," DCC Hamilton said.

"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. "

DCC Hamilton added: "We have also established a Community Relations Taskforce to help us address community concerns and are reviewing our policies and practices.

"This work will take time, but we remain determined to improve relationships and build confidence and trust in policing among all communities in Northern Ireland.

"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."

The North West Migrants Forum has welcomed the decision, saying it is long overdue.

A spokesperson for the organisation said: "The fact that they were is evidence of discriminatory policing and systemic racism in Northern Ireland.

"The news today is testament to the dedication and focus of anti-racist organizations and campaigners who have continued to shine a light on racial injustice in Northern Ireland. "While the North West Migrants Forum is relieved at the decision, it is notable that only black and immigrant participants were referred to the PPS."

The spokesperson added: "For 12 months, lawful activists have been living in the shadow of threatened prosecution.

"The PPS and the PSNI have demonstrated that they are more responsive to public gatherings organized by people from the two dominant groups than those involving the minority ethnic population.

"The disparity between the treatment of black and minority ethnic protestors and others is obvious."

The spokesperson further added: "While the PPS decision is welcome, the fixed penalty notices and fines issued by the PSNI on 6 June 2020 have not been dropped. This issue is far from over.

"The North West Migrants Forum and allies will continue to keep a spotlight on discriminatory and racist policies in the criminal justice system and beyond.

"Racial equality and racial justice are not just slogans. Northern Ireland still has a lot to learn and a long way to go to overcome inequality and discrimination."