POLICING the pandemic is a thankless task. If the PSNI opt for a light-touch approach to breaches of regulations they’re accused of two-tier or political policing; if they adopt a robust strategy to public breaches, they’re accused of being heavy-handed.
We acknowledge that it is a daunting challenge, but that’s why the Chief Constable gets the big hat and the big wage: he’s supposed to have come to the job with a lifetime of experience and a set of skills that have prepared him to make the big calls, and if we don’t expect him to get them all right, we’re entitled to expect his strike rate to be at least a respectable one.
Are we now to assume, for instance, that the Holyland will be handed over to young people on St Patrick’s Day? For just as it’s clear as day to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention that there will be breaches of the Covid rules in the Holyland next week
Sadly, Simon Byrne’s record is not one that will allow the Policing Board to look back as he approaches the end of his second year in the job and say they made the right decision in appointing him.
We’ve catalogued his missteps and bad calls too often and if he’s being honest with himself, Mr Byrne can only look back and agree that his performance has been far from stellar. But the really worrying thing is not that he has made mistakes, it is that he appears incapable of quickly taking on board lessons when he gets it wrong. And acting here on Covid breaches and not acting there is wrong.
The decision to hand the Shankill Road over to Rangers supporters on Sunday night to celebrate their club’s Scottish Premier League victory was a case in point. A prominent loyalist from the district claimed on BBC Radio Ulster that the regulation-busting street party had been completely spontaneous – but that’s simply not true. Social media postings advertising street celebrations have been going up in the weeks since the gap in the title race made the final third of the season a formality.
If local cops didn’t know this, or if they didn’t recognise that a major event was bound to take place, then they were are asleep at the Land Rover wheel. And if local stations aren’t being briefed by their bosses to stay alert for potential trouble points, then those bosses haven’t been doing their job.
Are we now to assume, for instance, that the Holyland will be handed over to young people on St Patrick’s Day? For just as it’s clear as day to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention that there will be breaches of the Covid rules in the Holyland next week (the only question being of what size), so it was inevitable that Rangers fans on the Shankill were going to breach the regulations.
It’s obvious by now that the PSNI policy on outdoor breaches of the law – if indeed we may assume there is a policy – is a failed one. Just as we are in the dark about when the lockdown will be lifted, we have no idea what the police are going to do when people decide that they are above the law.
It may well be that a stand back, observe, take names and act later strategy is best all round – no-one is for a second suggesting that stopping the Shankill party would have been easy or even possible.
But doing nothing has inevitably turned attention to next Wednesday in the Holyland, when nobody knows what the police will do. And at this point we fear Mr Byrne doesn’t know either.