Mary Lou McDonald rejects criticism of her comments on PSNI chief
Sinn Féin policing spokesman contradicts leader who said no one in force was capable of taking job
Mary Lou McDonald: ‘This is an issue of the culture of policing’. Photograph: Tom Honan
Sinn Féin Policing Spokesman Gerry Kelly questions PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton at meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board in February. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
The leader of Sinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald has rejected Police Federation of Northern Ireland criticism that her comments about a potential new chief constable were “wholly inappropriate and offensive.”
Ms McDonald said on Monday she believes no one within the PSNI is capable of taking on the job of chief constable.
“I was asked a straight forward question, I was asked is there somebody in the senior management who I believe should be the chief constable, I answered honestly no,” she told RTE’s News at One.
“I have made it clear that as far as I am concerned and I am reflecting the widely held views, certainly held across nationalist communities in northern society and way beyond Sinn Féin, that the PSNI’s credibility on the handling of legacy cases is now zero.
“I don’t decide who the chief constable is, Sinn Féin makes nominations of people to the Policing Board and once nominated to the Policing Board, each and everyone of those members is bound by the law.”
However Sinn Féin’s policing spokesman in Northern Ireland Gerry Kelly however appeared to contradict his leader’s remarks on Tuesday.
“There are clearly people capable within the PSNI and outside it to apply for this job,” Mr Kelly told BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan Show when challenged about Ms McDonald’s remarks.
The PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton is to retire in the summer and it will be for the North’s 19-member Policing Board, on which Sinn Féin has three members, to appoint his successor.
Ms McDonald’s comments have raised questions about whether any of the three Sinn Féin members including Mr Kelly will be able to sit on the interview panel.
Ms McDonald issued her remarks after she led a Sinn Féin delegation in talks with senior PSNI members on Monday about police failing to disclose to the office of the North’s Police Ombudsman “significant, sensitive information” about Troubles-related killings.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting Ms McDonald said, “Is there somebody inside who I think should be the chief constable? And I have to answer honestly that no, I cannot identify such a person.”
She added, “Lots of this is about who leads, who is in the top job within policing but it goes much more broad than that. This is an issue of the culture of policing, it is about their systems and about their capacity to be, and to be held, fully accountable.”
Ms McDonald said that party colleague Gerry Kelly, who is a member of the Policing Board, “was just stating the facts and the facts are that members of the Policing Board are obliged in law and by regulation to act in an impartial and fair way and to discharge their duties on the Policing Board.
“I’m not a member of the Policing Board and I haven’t made any commentary as a member of the Policing Board.
“The reality is that the PSNI has been found again to withhold information from the Policing Ombudsman in relation to the killing of citizens, that’s what’s happened here, if there’s a scandal or if there is something for people to get het up about that is the issue.”
When asked repeatedly if had any regrets about her comments, Ms McDonald did not reply directly. She said she made her comments because she knows of the need for “full and honest confidence in the police service.
“I also know that the latest episode of the PSNI wilfully withholding evidence has shaken confidence to its core, I know that confidence needs to be rebuilt.
I know that members of the policing board appointed by Sinn Féin will act scrupulously and impartially.”
Her comments prompted speedy criticism from the Police Federation of Northern Ireland, which represents rank-and-file police officers, and from several political parties, including the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance.
On Tuesday the chief constable Mr Hamilton also weighed into the row by retweeting a tweet from the Police Federation which stated: “This amounts to extraordinary interference in an open and transparent selection process.”
Mark Lindsay, chairman of the Police Federation, said Ms McDonald’s comments “will call into question the objectivity and credibility of Sinn Féin representatives who will be involved” in the selection process.
“Her comments have placed her party’s representatives on the Policing Board in a difficult position and in the interests of fairness to senior PSNI officers who might put their names forward for the post, I call on the Sinn Féin president to reflect on her grave miscalculation and apologise,” he said.
“Senior officers in the PSNI do not deserve to be treated as some second-class candidates in this competition. They are people of integrity who work for the entire community and should not be disadvantaged in this manner,” added Mr Lindsay.
On Tuesday morning Mr Kelly went to BBC’s Nolan Show to comment about Ms McDonald’s remarks. Over the course of an interview lasting just over 10 minutes Mr Kelly said any Sinn Féin Policing Board member sitting on the interview panel for the next chief constable “will act on the basis of objectivity and the basis of merit whether those candidates are from within the PSNI or from outside the PSNI”.
“I cannot be clearer than that,” he said.
Mr Kelly said that during the selection process there were independent assessors also involved to ensure the process was conducted properly.
He repeated that Sinn Féin would be objective and act on the basis of merit during the selection. He also said that Ms McDonald did not know the PSNI top team and would not be involved in the interview process.
At the end of the interview he told Stephen Nolan, “There are clearly people capable within the PSNI and outside it to apply for this job.”
DUP Policing Board member Mervyn Storey said he has written to the Policing Board seeking legal advice about Ms McDonald’s comments. He asked, “How can any SF member sit on that panel and candidates from the PSNI expect to get a fair hearing?”
Ulster Unionist Party board member Alan Chambers said Ms McDonald’s comments raised “genuine concerns that this is Sinn Féin’s way of signalling that it is preparing to withdraw support for policing in Northern Ireland”.
He added: “You have to wonder just who Sinn Féin would find acceptable to fill the role of chief constable, especially when you recall their opposition to the appointment of Drew Harris as Garda Commissioner. You would almost think they don’t want to be policed by anyone.”
Alliance board member John Blair also questioned whether Sinn Féin could remain on the interview panel. He described Ms McDonald’s comments as “careless and irresponsible”.
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said Sinn Féin should have no say on the chief constable selection board. He said Ms McDonald’s remarks “have blown apart the myth of republican support for police and the rule of law in Northern Ireland”.