Fourteen people reported to Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) after Black Lives Matter protests last year will not be prosecuted.
They were referred to the PPS for potential breaches of Covid-19 regulations in Belfast and Londonderry
The PPS said there was “no reasonable prospect of conviction for any offence”.
Last year, the Police Ombudsman found justification in claims the handling of the Black Lives Matter protests by the PSNI was unfair and discriminatory.
A further complaint of race discrimination is being investigated.
PPS assistant director Martin Hardy said the test for prosecution had not been met.
“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,” he said.
“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.
“This was on the basis that the evidence would allow the suspects to successfully raise the statutory defence of reasonable excuse.”
Darragh Mackin, from Phoenix Law, said the decision vindicated his clients and “the right to protest generally”.
He called on the chief constable to apologise to those who had been put through “almost a year of torment for simply exercising their fundamental right to protest.”
“We don’t think we should have been referred for prosecution and that exposes the blatant discrimination that took place,” she said.
The PPS said considerations included:
- the potential breadth of the reasonable excuse defence, particularly in relation to the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly
- the protests related to a matter of important social concern
- a lack of clarity in coronavirus regulations
- issues in relation to the “proportionality and consistency” of the policing approach to different protests
PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said it had not been “easy or comfortable” to balance public health and the right to protest.
“Our response unintentionally damaged the confidence and trust of the black, Asian and minority ethnic community,” he said.
He said the decision by the PPS “underlines yet again the difficulties” the force had in policing during the coronavirus pandemic, with officers dealing with “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,” he said.
“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.”
‘Right to protest’
“We knew from the outset that we had a human right to protest, a human right that was breached by the PSNI,” she told BBC Radio Foyle.
Organisers had gone to great length, she said, to ensure the protest could take place with the required public health measures.
She said: “What the PSNI did that day was disrupt the effort that we had put in place.
“We followed all the regulations and then what happened? We were criminalised.”