North’s policing board has helped generate public confidence in PSNI
Board guards the guardians and could be replicated in the South
PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott and his senior officers are questioned about the issues of the day
Maurice Hayes, one of the men responsible for the creation of the North’s policing board, reckons that if a similar body held the Garda to account then Martin Callinan might not have felt compelled to resign and Alan Shatter might not be facing questions about his future as Minister of Justice.
“Absolutely, there should be a board to hold the gardaí to account, just as the policing board holds the PSNI to account,” said Mr Hayes, who is one of the speakers at a two-day Confidence in Policing conference that opened in Belfast last night.
Mr Hayes believes one of the reasons there is considerable confidence in the PSNI (currently 87 per cent of the public have “some, a lot or total confidence” in the force) is due to the success of the North’s policing board.
It provides a “buffer” between policing and the Northern Executive, he said. Had one been in existence in the South he believes the current tumult over penalty points, the fall of Mr Callinan, the pressure on Mr Shatter and the consequent Coalition divisions might have been avoided because of that effective protective wall.
So how does the Policing board operate and why is it regarded as successful?
It was established on November 4th, 2001, the same day as the PSNI, as a result of proposals by Chris Patten’s commission on policing reform of which Mr Hayes was a member. This led to the transition of the Royal Ulster Constabulary into the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
It is an independent public body that oversees policing, is in charge of the PSNI’s annual £1.1 billion budget and tries to ensure that policing is “effective, efficient and impartial”.
It has 19 members, 10 from the Northern Assembly based on party strengths and nine independents. The DUP has four members, Sinn Féin three, with one each from the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance. Its first chairman and vice-chairman were Prof Sir Desmond Rea and Denis Bradley, both independent members. It now has its first woman chair – Anne Connolly – with Stuart McDonnell as vice-chair. Again, both are independents.
The political-independent makeup of the board is designed to maintain balance and to try to ensure that party politics does not dominate the operations of the board.
Sinn Féin did not join until 2007 when it finally fully signed up to support policing and justice in Northern Ireland.
It holds public meetings once a month at which the PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott and his senior officers are questioned about the issues of the day.
It also meets regularly in private session and at subcommittee level.
Soon it will have the task of appointing a new deputy chief constable and Chief Constable after Judith Gillespie retired as deputy and with Mr Baggott standing down next September. It has appointed two chief constables, Sir Hugh Orde and his successor Mr Baggott.
Policing is such an emotive issue in Northern Ireland, and particularly in the light of how unionists were so irate at the removal of the RUC, that the board had to chart a difficult course in its early days. There was scepticism over whether it would work but its first major breakthrough was in agreeing an emblem for the PSNI that generally satisfied all sides.
In December 2001 it unanimously adopted a badge that features a Saint Patrick’s Cross surrounded by six symbols - a harp, crown, shamrock, laurel leaf, torch and scales of justice.
In a society where flags and emblems can cause serious public disorder this decision was almost astonishing and provided the board with the confidence not to be slavish to the unionist-nationalist diktats of Northern Ireland.
As well as dealing with policing at strategic level the board also runs policing and community safety partnerships comprised of members such as councillors and community workers who hold police to account at local level.
Its monthly public meetings where policing issues are aired and argued over has regularly provided good copy for journalists.
Tensions and rows regularly surface and erupt with matters such as the policing fallout from the Omagh bombing, the Northern Bank robbery, the previous 50:50 Catholic-Protestant recruitment policy, and more recently the issue of the on-the-runs, leading to lively quarrels between senior police and, mostly, political members.
Nonetheless, there has not been a time when the board was in danger of implosion. Even a 400lb dissident bomb that partially exploded at the board’s headquarters in the Belfast docklands in 2009 failed to knock its work off course.
Such a board ensures somebody is guarding the guardians, provides the nexus between the public and the police, allows contentious issues to be ventilated before they detonate, and as Mr Hayes has suggested, if operating in the Republic could have defused the rows before a head or heads had to roll.