Black people in Northern Ireland received COVID-19 fines at a rate nine times higher than white people last year.
The figures have been described as an example of “Northern Ireland's structural racism and oppression of black people”, with police facing calls from human rights groups and political representatives to provide answers, and explain the figures.
VICE World News teamed up with The Detail, an investigative news website based in Belfast, to obtain statistics on all COVID fines and COVID-related Community Resolution Notices (CRNs) issued in Northern Ireland in 2020.
The statistics, uncovered using Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation, reveal that Black people received 1.84 percent of the total fines, where ethnicity was recorded, despite making up around 0.2 percent of the population.
4.21 percent of all COVID-19 fines in Northern Ireland went to people from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. Black people made up almost half of these.
Of the COVID-related CRNs distributed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2020, 5.4 percent were given to people from BAME backgrounds, despite this group making up around 1.8 percent of the population in Northern Ireland.
In 2020 in Northern Ireland, there were 2,821 COVID-19 fines and 1,054 COVID-19-related CRNs, where ethnicity was recorded, with 119 and 57 of these going to people from BAME backgrounds respectively.
This is the first time these figures have been published. They follow similar trends from England where BAME people were also disproportionately fined by police.
The disproportionality may be partly explained by the PSNI’s handling of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in Belfast and Derry June, which has been ruled “discriminatory” by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. During these protests, dozens of people were issued with COVID fines, while organisers were interviewed under Section 44 of the Serious Crime Act, legislation normally used to target organised crime. This contrasts with other public gatherings during the summer, including a “protect our statues” protest the following week which saw no fines handed out.
The PSNI was already under pressure to rebuild its “damaged relationship” with Northern Ireland’s Black and minority ethnic communities, after its handling of these protests, as well as failures to deal with racist attacks.
“The high rate in which Black and minority ethnic people are criminalised is shocking, but not surprising”, Lilian Seenoi-Barr of the North West Migrants Forum said. “Northern Ireland's structural racism and oppression of Black people is not something new. It has just been very well hidden.”
The PSNI declined to answer a question on whether the COVID-19 fines or CRNs arising from the June BLM protests have any connection to the disproportionate fining of BAME people.
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said in October that "the vast majority of the fines at [the] Black Lives Matter protest weren't issued to Black people".
Phoenix Law, the Belfast human rights firm representing the organisers of the BLM protests, have said each of their clients interviewed in connection with this issue are Black, with the exception of one other who is also from a migrant background.
Tura Arutura is an artist and social justice activist who spoke at the Belfast BLM protest in June 2020, and was subsequently interviewed by police.
He says that the disproportionate number of fines given to BAME people may be connected to the BLM protests, but that the figures show “more of a trend within the policing in the pandemic which continually disproportionately impacts us”.
While the police have since offered an apology for their handling of the protests, they have still forwarded files on the organisers to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) in Northern Ireland.
Arutura said this makes it hard to feel the PSNI has been genuine.
There have been consistent calls for the PSNI to drop these charges, as well as all fines and CRNs handed out at BLM protests.
The PSNI has said it is not within the service’s power to rescind fines, however, COVID-19 fines have been rescinded in England and Wales.
We sought clarification from the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Department of Justice DoJ, on what the difference is in Northern Ireland, but this question was not answered.
Amnesty International said the new data on COVID-19 fines “paint a worrying picture”.
“The police need to provide answers for why this has happened”, Patrick Corrigan, the organisation’s Northern Ireland director, said. “There must be decisive and credible action from PSNI senior leadership to rebuild their damaged relationship with Northern Ireland’s black and minority ethnic communities.
“Members of Northern Ireland’s black and minority ethnic communities have told me that they do not feel that the police provides effective protection from racist attacks,” Corrigan added.
Figures show that despite the thousands of race hate crimes that have occurred in recent years in Northern Ireland, which are believed to be significantly underreported, almost 90 per cent do not result in a conviction.
Muhammad Atif, a trustee of the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association, said that people from BAME communities were “easy targets” for the PSNI to fine and that they are “afraid of the police”.
The Belfast Multi-Cultural Association has been subjected to several hate crimes in recent months. In October, cars belonging to volunteers had their windows smashed with concrete blocks.
Atif said that when the police came to speak with them following the attack they were more concerned about the activities of the centre, which also operates as a foodbank, and the immigration status of the volunteers. Atif thought: “Are you serious? We are the victims here.”
In addition, Atif said there’s a suggestion that paramilitaries were behind the attacks on the cars.
Over two decades since the Good Friday Agreement, which marked the end of most of the violence in Northern Ireland, paramilitary groups continue to play a role in society.
Police have previously noted the direct involvement of members of loyalist terror groups in racist attacks, which human rights groups say helps explain the low level of convictions, as people fear reprisals if they speak out against these groups.
The police organised a meeting between the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association and community leaders.
“Instead of police investigating this issue, or going after these criminals, they found it was much easier to put so-called community leaders and us in a room together to solve the problem,” Atif said.
“My question to them was ‘If we are sitting in this room, are we acknowledging that these are the people who smashed the car windows, and if they are not, why are are we sitting with them?’”
The police subsequently dropped the plan for the sit-down. Atif said: “Now we are back to square one and I have told the PSNI many times, ‘I'm afraid something big will happen for you to notice’.”
In January 2021, the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association building was badly damaged in a large fire that police have said was a deliberate hate crime.
“There are a lot of political promises in the heat of the moment”, Atif said of the reaction after the attack. “Nothing has happened, and we are not really expecting anything.”
Matthew O’Toole represents the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland’s legislative Assembly.
He said the BAME community’s confidence in the PSNI “took a serious hit” following the BLM protests and that an “erosion of trust culminated in the reprehensible attack on the Belfast Multicultural Association in south Belfast – following a prolonged period of low levels of harassment and a perception that it was not being taken seriously enough”.
O’Toole added: “My constituency of South Belfast is proudly the most diverse in Northern Ireland.
“Our politicians and police need to actively engage with those communities to build trust and to ensure that it has maximum information and support when navigating its way through the pandemic.”
Mr O’Toole also called on the PSNI to give an explanation over the figures we have uncovered under FoI.
In addition, Andy George, the President of the National Black Police Association and an inspector in the PSNI, said the police need to do more to rectify the damage that has been caused, as currently “it operates to the detriment of ethnic minority communities and doesn’t take them into account in wider decision-making”.
The PSNI told us it is committed to acting in an “inclusive, non-biased, lawful and proportionate manner”.
We were also informed that PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne accepts the Police Ombudsman’s report into the police’s handling of BLM protests.
The PSNI said: “We are taking forward the lessons learned and have been engaged in reviewing our policy, practice and procedural fairness. We have also established a new Community Relations Taskforce.”