By Jamie Bryson
Let me begin this piece by setting a clear and unambiguous context. I despise drug dealing and have campaigned against it my whole adult life. If people choose to engage in drug dealing then my view is that they take their chances with the law and if convicted they deserve a strong deterrent sentence. I do not think I can be any clearer than that.
It would of course be popular and easy therefore to avoid mentioning the Paramilitary Crime Task Force raids in east Belfast last week, in which a number of people were charged with drug related offences, or indeed to go further and come out to praise the PCTF and view their actions with an uncritical eye.
It would similarly be easy to join the media frenzy and convict people before they have even had a bail hearing. None other than the Chief Constable himself once again prejudiced any chance those charged had of a fair trial with his tweets. His contribution simply added to the appalling PR offensive launched by the PCTF- which appears to focus on media coverage as their primary objective.
Do I support the pursuit of crime, especially drug related crime? Of course.
Do I support the rule of law and the key tenets of our justice system? I do. Therefore I find myself looking at the whole PCTF operation and wondering how many of the key principles of fairness, and most importantly the presumption of innocence, has been so flagrantly dispensed with.
The Cliff Richard judgement was clear; seemingly however it was not clear enough for the PSNI. They continue to not only secretly leak information to journalists, but openly bring media outlets along on search operations. Remember of course that persons are only being arrested at this stage; the PSNI’s prejudicial statements and media ride-alongs come at a pre charge stage of an investigation. Where else in the United Kingdom would such a prejudicial fanfare be tolerated?
We even had carefully contrived comments from the PCTF subtly trying to link the arrests last week to the disgraceful murder of Ian Ogle, despite there being no connection whatsoever- a fact the PSNI had to belatedly accept- but the damage was done. A dog whistle for the media and society to automatically label those arrested as low life scum and thus be happy enough to turn a blind eye as the basic rights of the suspects were systematically violated in order to generate headlines for the PCTF and by extension justify their existence.
You may also wonder why the PCTF deliberately link suspects to paramilitary groups (besides of course the PIRA who appear immune from police attention)- this is a tactic designed to set the public narrative to ensure that such persons- even if they are not charged with any paramilitary related offence- will face a non-jury trial. In laymans terms it is a clever device designed to ensure that those selectively targeted by the PSNI will not face a jury of their peers. It isn’t hard to see what they are doing- it is all about prejudicing the DPP’s decision making process to ensure the balance is weighed in favour of issuing a non-jury certificate.
Do not think the prejudicial statements are just for the fun of it, it is a well thought out strategy designed to remove the right to a jury trial from certain suspects. It epitomises the type of inequality under the law we have grown to expect from the PSNI.
The PSNI bank of the silence of the public who most of the time are happy enough to turn a blind eye to the more questionable elements of the PSNI’s activities because it is all part of serving the greater good. But is it really?
Only a week ago the PSNI had released a statement announcing the arrest of a man for possessing class A drugs. This individual had already been widely named on social media and in the mainstream press due to his original arrest in relation to the tragic events in Cookstown, so instantly the PSNI- by virtue of their statement- had linked the man to drug supply. Less than two hours later they had to de-arrest the man once it became clear they had seized washing powder. Once again their thirst for dramatic headlines trumped the presumption of innocence and rule of law.
So I say to all of those cheerleading for the PCTF, especially those within loyalism, there is a vast difference between supporting the pursuit of crime and rightly opposing drug dealing in all its forms and giving carte blanche support to a task force who regularly dispense with the core tenets of fairness and the presumption of innocence as part of their Elliot Ness type pursuit of one section of the community.
And let’s not kid ourselves, the PCTF is a political creation driven by political objectives. It was set up in the wake of a PIRA murder yet the PCTF have not carried out one single solitary search or arrest in relation to PIRA- not one!
It is primarily focused on loyalism, with the majority of the budget devoted to crime within loyalist communities. Pursuing crime is fine, but does crime only exist in loyalist areas? There isn’t loyalist crime, there is just crime. Yet to listen to the PCTF you would think that crime only exists in loyalist areas. They of course hide behind the excuse that MI5 take responsibility for national security and thus dissident republicans, so if that is the case let’s be honest and call it as it is- the task force is a loyalist task force, with a sprinkling of the INLA thrown in to take the bad look of it.
Even within the loyalist community it is selective. It does not target all crime; it only selectively targets crime within sections of loyalism which are deemed to be politically inconvenient or refusing to toe the line in terms of support for the ‘process’. It isn’t a crime to be anti-agreement, yet it appears it most certainly is the gateway to being made subject to targeting by the PCTF.
I’ve also heard recently of the PCTF targeting people’s mortgages, trying to take people’s homes and leave them on the street because they inflated their income on their mortgage application. That is fine if everyone in society is going to lose their house if they inflated their income on a finance application. What about the PSNI officers who have told a white lie on some of their finance applications? Will they too be subjected to the same rigorous approach and investigation as loyalists, or are loyalists an underclass? A special quarantined section of the community to be targeted and held to a different standard under the law than everyone else?
If we as a society are going to dispense with the presumption of innocence and the fundamental principle of equality under the law depending on the type of offence a suspect is arrested and/or charged with, then what is the point of the law at all? Who sits in judgement over when the PSNI should treat a suspect fairly and they should be entitled to the presumption of innocence, or when it is fair game to trash a suspects rights working in tandem with sections of the media to generate headlines that anywhere else in the United Kingdom would not be tolerated?
The PSNI’s job is pursuing crime and bringing offenders to justice. As I clearly set out at the start of this piece I support that general principle, I want to see an end to drug dealing, to coercive control and to all forms of criminal activity within our communities. But I want to see it done fairly and I want to see all persons treated equally under the law and being held equally subject to the law.
I want to see this applied across all communities, not selectively applied for political purposes. The PSNI, and PCTF within it, should explain their methodology in terms of their engagement with the media, why they find it appropriate to bring the media on ride-alongs to pre charge arrests and indeed why some sections of the community are subjected to more rigorous scrutiny than others.
They should explain why it is necessary to drag half dressed women out of their homes, why it is necessary and proportionate to sledgehammer doors in simply for dramatic effect for the TV cameras, without first trying to gain access by consent? Why it is necessary to seize and worse still retain children’s Ipads and toys? In this day and age is it not possible to at worst case, if they must seize it, to take a child’s phone or tablet and triage it on the day to ensure it belongs to the child and then return it?
PSNI are good at engaging with republican communities, when can the loyalist community have some answers to the points raised within this article?
In a report soon to be released it will be revealed that the Unionist Voice Policy Studies group have collated some crime statistics and some of the areas focused on by the PCTF have far lower crime statistics than other areas which, far from being targeted by the PCTF, are endorsed by the PSNI via panel talks and public photoshoots. That would lead me to conclude that this isn’t really about pursuing crime, but rather using the selective pursuit of crime for political purposes.