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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Lisa O'Carroll

Byrne exit shows weight of political pressure on Northern Ireland’s police

Simon Byrne walks through a crowd of camera operators and journalists holding out microphones
Simon Byrne leaves James House in Belfast last Thursday after a seven-hour meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

In the end, it appears it was the politics of Northern Ireland that ended Simon Byrne’s career as chief constable.

Nowhere outside the Metropolitan area in London is the job of policing subject to such scrutiny, criticism and political commentary.

Nevertheless, the sudden departure on Monday of the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) after an emergency meeting came as a bolt from the blue.

Byrne had seemed to weather the biggest crisis to hit modern policing in the region – a data leak of about 10,000 PSNI officers and staff that included the surname and first initial of every employee, as well as their rank or grade, where they were based and the unit they worked for, in response to a freedom of information request.

It is a measure of the continued fragility of the peace process in Northern Ireland that the accidental publication of personal details put families at risk.

Even 25 years after the Good Friday peace agreement, many officers continue to shield their identities, with some not even not telling their children they are in the PSNI.

Byrne apologised after the leak for the “industrial scale” data breach but insisted it was not the time to fall on his sword.

Before the leak four weeks ago, the Northern Ireland Policing Board, , which has oversight of the PSNI, evidently had confidence in Byrne renewing his contract for another three years.

Since the leak, however, Byrne had come under mounting pressure to go. It subsequently emerged that there had been a second data breach in July with a theft of documents including a spreadsheet containing the names of more than 200 serving officers and staff.

The Police Federation of Northern Ireland, which represents rank-and-file officers, led the calls for him to go, saying morale had never been lower in the force and decrying what it said was a “worrying disconnect between those in leadership roles and the men and women from all community backgrounds who are the rank and file”.

Politicians also piled in, with the Democratic Unionist party saying on Monday that a man with almost 40 years of service should know “his time is up”.

An embattled Byrne nevertheless remained defiant. Even after a seven-hour meeting last Thursday with the Policing Board, he told reporters he would not be resigning.

The meeting followed a high court ruling that a decision by the PSNI leadership to take disciplinary action against two junior police officers over an intervention during the pandemic was unlawful.

The judge said they had been disciplined to allay a threat that Sinn Féin could withdraw its support for policing in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin has insisted there was no such threat.

Despite his defiant stance before the weekend, Byrne’s immediate resignation was announced at a press conference on Monday after an emergency meeting of the Policing Board.

Public confidence in policing is critical to the success of forces throughout the UK where “policing by consent” underpins everyday operations.

The data breach may have increased the vulnerability of officers, but the perception that decisions anywhere in the PSNI are made with local politics in mind is arguably worse because it erodes trust in policing.

It is a measure of Northern Ireland’s continued societal divisions that more than 25 years after the Good Friday agreement, the independence of the police was compromised by political considerations.

But when politicians are not running the country and instability is not being addressed by those who are elected to govern, it is perhaps inevitable in a small state with a sectarian past like Northern Ireland that policing has come to be seen as a form of politics.

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