A thinking cop with a smidgen of understanding for those at risk of suicide, when confronting the former republican prisoner Henry McErlean as he attached a suicide awareness poster to a lamppost in North Belfast, had the discretionary option of saying we get the point but it makes life easier if you don’t do this in front of us.
Instead the PSNI arrested Henry McErlean on the grounds that that he was “interfering with a lamppost using tools and a ladder”.
We know they have discretion on matters of interfering with lampposts. They use it all the time. Seamus Delaney, the dead man's solicitor, expressed exasperation at it.
It’s unbelievable how this arrest came about. We were coming up to the marching season in which loyalists and unionist bedeck their estates in banners and flags with impunity ... The PSNI don’t bother them even though a lot of these flags, a lot of them paramilitary flags, are hoisted on public property.
Henry McErlean was ultimately accused of disorderly behaviour, obstructing police and resisting arrest but sometime after he failed to make an appearance in court due to illness he took his own life. Seamus Delaney claimed that he was in no doubt that McErlean’s health had been adversely affected by the arrest.
This was a man who at 62 years old was still an accomplished runner but after his arrest I noticed a dramatic change in him.
Given some of the things republican activists have attached to lampposts back in the day, coupled with the fact that Henry McErlean was a member of a republican group that still adheres to physical force republicanism, it should be no cause whatsoever for concern that a former IRA prisoner was attaching nothing more harmful to a lamppost than a life enhancing aid.
I knew Henry McErlean in the H Blocks. On one of the wings I shared with him he was an end cell guy, down in Cell 14 or 15 at the very bottom of the wing. Unobtrusive and unassuming, he was one of those people who faded into the surroundings, never to be seen much unless you needed a dig out. You really had to go to his cell looking him.
That is what he was doing when the catalyst for his death took place: giving a dig out to those at risk of suicide. For that the PSNI went looking him. When the Republican Network for Unity describe his arrest as "vengeful spite" enough people will concede they have a point given the policy of maximum tolerance to loyalists interfering with lampposts.