7 April 2005 Edition
PSNI fabricates anti-republican 'evidence
A Special Branch-inspired campaign of targeting vulnerable families in the Poleglass and Twinbrook areas of West Belfast to massage statistics for the IMC and the operation of the PSNI as a sectarian body in Ballymena are just the latest incidents that illustrate why many northern nationalists have good cause to remain highly suspicious of the force. LAURA FRIEL reports
HAS the PSNI been fabricating 'evidence' against republicans in an attempt to bolster 'information' about republican 'threats' for the IMC? It certainly looks as if this has been the case in West Belfast. A community group working in the Poleglass and Twinbrook area has expressed concern about a number of vulnerable young people who have been targeted by the PSNI.
Community Restorative Justice has been established in the Lagan Valley area for over a decade. The community group was formed as a mechanism to deal with grievances and disputes within the local community through mediation. The CRJ works closely with a range of statutory bodies, including both social services and the housing executive. It is also an established mechanism of mediation between local people and armed groups.
An Phoblacht contacted the CRJ after a number of families complained that they had been recently targeted by the PSNI, who had informed them of threats against them that subsequently turned out to be false. Members of the PSNI had visited their homes to issue official 'warning' notices claiming that there was an imminent 'PIRA' threat against a family member.
While individual families were initially prepared to believe there had just been a terrible mistake, the realisation that the PSNI have issued a series of false warnings to a number of families in the same area is beginning to look like something more sinister. Significantly, the families do not appear to have been randomly targeted but specifically selected by the PSNI.
Deirdre Groves is a trained mediator and has worked with CRJ for over five years. She is currently project co-ordinator in the Poleglass/Twinbrook area office. Deirdre is one of a number of members of the CRJ who have been working with the families targeted by the PSNI. The CRJ has documented each case.
"Families have been visited by PSNI officers and have been issued with a PSNI official notice alleging a threat against a family member by 'PIRA'. A young person in each of the families concern has been told by the PSNI that they are under a threat of violence or death but in each case the allegation has been totally false," says Deirdre.
Through their established mechanisms, the CRJ were able to establish very quickly that no such threat existed. In each case, the family targeted by the PSNI has had a similar profile. "They are not families with any serious anti-social behaviour history," says Deirdre.
The CRJ have documented each incident as local families have brought them to their attention and they believe a significant pattern has begun to emerge. The individuals targeted by the PSNI have been particularly vulnerable. Some have been suffering from depression or are currently receiving psychiatric care. "Most worrying of all, some would be considered suicidal and even have a history of attempted suicide," says Deirdre.
"It has been a traumatic experience for the families. In some cases, because the families were themselves republicans, it has been easier for them to accept reassurances but a number of families have been far harder to reassure.
"I arrived at work one morning to find a mother and son waiting outside. Both were visibly shaken. Other young people temporarily left the area while their families sought clarification. They have all returned with reassurances," says Deirdre.
But although the CRJ has been able to expose the PSNI allegations of threats as nonsense, a number of the families have been repeatedly targeted by the PSNI. "One family in particular has been visited three times and presented with three official notices of threats," says Deirdre.
In a particularly sinister case, the PSNI told one young man that he was under threat because republicans suspected he was acting as an informer. "This young person is particularly vulnerable and never leaves his home. I'm afraid that the PSNI are deliberately targeting vulnerable people in the hope of pushing someone over the edge," says Deirdre.
These series of incidents began prior to the last IMC report and have continued since. The number of official notices of threats from armed groups issued by the PSNI is the kind of data upon which the IMC relies.
Issuing false warnings would be a cynical ploy by the PSNI to increase the perceived threat posed by republicans but that's not the worst scenario feared by local people. Some people have pointed out that the suicide of a young person, where the PSNI could claim republican intimidation, would further feed the current media frenzy.
"It would be despicable if anyone pursued such an agenda by putting a young person's life at risk," says Deirdre.
In one incident, the PSNI issued a warning of an alleged 'threat' from the CRJ. "This in itself exposes the nonsense of the PSNI's official warnings. The CRJ has a long and established record of peaceful mediation as a method of resolving difficulties and our work with many statutory agencies bears witness to that record," says Deirdre.
Following the allegation against the CRJ, the Social Services contacted the PSNI to refute the allegation and complain about the targeting of the group.
Speaking to An Phoblacht, a parent of one of the young people targeted by the PSNI described the initial shock experienced by her family.
"We were distracted but after the PSNI had left, when we thought about it, it just didn't make any sense. I contacted the CRJ and they were able to check it out and get back to us fairly quickly. It was utter nonsense," she said.
"I am a republican myself and so it was easier for me to accept reassurances as genuine. But for other families, those who feel more isolated, reassurance is going to be more difficult.
"It's important for them to know that this hasn't just happened to them. It's important for them to know a number have families have been contacted and that the whole thing is a lot of nonsense, just a ploy by the PSNI. I'm angry. I feel the PSNI has been playing politics and my family has become a pawn in some wider game," she said.
Local Sinn Féin councillor Veronica Willis has condemned the cynical manipulation by the PSNI of vulnerable young people and their families in her constituency and described the actions of the PSNI as "an attempt to demonise republicans". The strategy had all the hallmarks of the Special Branch or British dirty tricks, she said.
Collusion with loyalists
Meanwhile, the PSNI have been accused of colluding with loyalists engaging in sectarian violence against nationalists living in Ballymena. In recent months, a loyalist gang that operates in the town centre has targeted young nationalists in a series of sectarian attacks.
During a recent incident, a local loyalist broke a young Catholic woman's jaw. In another attack, a Protestant woman was targeted because her boyfriend is a Catholic. The woman suffered a broken nose.
In the most recent attack, a group of masked loyalists armed with baseball bats smashed a car belonging to a 24-year-old nationalist outside the leisure centre where he works.
Darren McGinty said the gang caused more than £3,000 worth of damage to his car. A receptionist who witnessed the incident had alerted Darren to the attack. The gang escaped into the nearby Ballykeel estate.
Darren believes that he and other young nationalists in Ballymena are being singled out for loyalist attacks because of PSNI stop and search harassment. A number of complaints about PSNI harassment have already been passed to the Ombudsman's office.
Sinn Féin MLA in North Antrim Phillip McGuigan has accused the PSNI of being involved in a campaign of „political policing‰.
"The PSNI are singling out young nationalists in the city centre for particular attention and before long they are attacked by loyalists," said McGuigan.
"I have been in contact with the Ombudsman's office and I've raised the issue with the British Irish Intergovernmental Secretariat," said McGuigan.
Educating Dermot Ahern
Northern nationalist experience on the ground stands in sharp contrast to the notion of policing expressed by Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern. In a statement released to the Irish Times, Ahern urged Sinn Féin to support policing in the north as it is currently constituted.
"The challenge now for Sinn Féin is to convince us that they want decent policing in Northern Ireland and that they are in a position to make a contribution towards it," wrote Ahern.
According to the minister, a decision to support policing means "offering positive encouragement to young nationalists to join the police or the part time reserve.
"It means contributing constructively to the work of the Policing Boards and the district policing partnerships and an end to all subtle forms of discouragement and intimidation that are still inhibiting ordinary people from dealing with the police."
Clearly, Dermot Ahern's notion of the PSNI is far removed from the experience of northern nationalists. Ordinary people aren't inhibited from dealing with the PSNI because of republican "discouragement and intimidation". Neither is it simply a matter of "deep concern about some issues from the past".
Ordinary people are inhibited from dealing with the PSNI because they are still experiencing the force as sectarian and partisan. The fact that Special Branch remains at the heart of policing in the north means that the PSNI is still operating as a political rather than civic body.
It's not just a case of ordinary people having yet to see the changes they were promised fully realised. The fact that these changes have not been realised has a direct impact on how policing is experienced by ordinary people.
Ordinary nationalists don't trust the PSNI. They don't trust the PSNI not because of anything republicans might say or do but because the PSNI has failed to demonstrate it is reliably trustworthy.