PSNI stopping and detaining non-white travellers disproportionately, data shows

Police in Northern Ireland are stopping and detaining a disproportionate number of black, Asian and mixed race travellers under anti-terrorism laws, according to newly disclosed data.

More than a third of those stopped and three-quarters of those detained in 2019 were not white, said a report by Jonathan Hall QC, who conducted an independent review of the UK’s terrorism legislation.

Of 559 stops of travellers in 2019, 55% were white, almost a quarter were categorised as Asian or Chinese and 14% were black or of mixed race.

More than 98% of Northern Ireland’s population is white, according to the 2011 census.

Of the 31 travellers detained under terrorism legislation, just 13% were white while a quarter were black or of mixed race and just over half were categorised as Asian, Chinese or other.

Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act lets officers examine, search and detain those travelling through ports or borders to determine if they are terrorists. Police can also take fingerprints and seize electronic devices for examination.

Checks can take place at ports or in the border area, which permits checks on people travelling through Newry, the first Northern Ireland stop on the Dublin to Belfast train.

Hall said the statistical samples were too small to judge whether the law was being applied fairly but that the Police Service of Northern Ireland appeared to be using it carefully. “That being said, the PSNI does continue to rely a great deal on discretion when deciding who to examine under schedule 7, thus bringing the importance of safeguards against irrational or discriminatory use into sharp relief,” he added.

Dr John Topping, a lecturer in criminology at Queen’s University Belfast and an authority on stop and search, agreed that the small sample size made it hard to draw inferences. “However, what is clear to see is while those defined as ‘white’ make up the majority of examinations, ethnic minority groups comprise the majority of detentions. Or in other words, the examination of minority ethnic groups appears to be associated with increased propensity for detention. Whether or not that is down to intelligence or other information is hard to say.”

Ireland and the UK have a common travel area but authorities have been making passport checks with no legal basis, at times on the basis of racial discrimination, said Daniel Holder, deputy director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, a Belfast-based advocacy group.

“One element of these concerns is the potential for the misuse of powers under schedule 7 – which can only lawfully be used for terrorism act purposes and not for routine immigration control. We welcome the independent reviewer has looked at this and at present does not find an indication of abuse but we would urge this area is kept under scrutiny, particularly in the context of post-Brexit stops once travel picks up again.”

In a statement the PSNI said it used terrorism legislation power only when necessary and in ways that respected human rights. Governance groups ensured police powers were used fairly and effectively, it said. “The particular arrangements in place in Northern Ireland guarantee unprecedented levels of scrutiny and accountability. These ensure that everyone in our community can have confidence that police are answerable for their actions and decisions.”

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